Georgian Chester

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This is part of a series of articles on the history of Chester through time:

St John's Hospital together with the Northgate. The larger part of the buildings dates from 1717 and is a very good example of the transition from the elaborate Baroque style of the late Stuarts to a rather more plain "mainstream" Georgian. The building had been funded partly by the Corporation and partly by benefactions following the instigation of the charity by Bishop Stratford.

The Georgian era is a period in British history from 1714 to c. 1830–37, named after the Hanoverian Kings George I, George II, George III and George IV. The sub-period that is the Regency era is defined by the regency of George IV as Prince of Wales during the illness of his father George III. The definition of the Georgian era is often extended to include the relatively short reign of William IV, which ended with his death in 1837. Historians debate the exact ending, with the deaths of George IV in 1830 or William IV in 1837 as the usual marker. In most social and cultural trends, the timing varied. Victorians typically were disapproving of the times of the previous era. By the late 19th century, the "Georgian era" was a byword for a degenerate culture.

By 1700 Chester was on the verge of losing its dominance as a regional economic hub, as nearby towns, especially the industrial and mill towns in south Lancashire and around Telford began to specialize in trade or manufacturing. The reopening of the Dee in 1737 did not halt Chester's decline as a port. Long-distance voyages had declined: in 1700 there were only 10 outward international sailings and 20 inward. In 1701 Chester shipowners had 25 vessels, and in the early 1710s the total tonnage, no more than 3,400, was less than half that owned at Liverpool. The first commercial wet dock was built in Liverpool in 1715. By the 1730s trade through the port of Chester had fallen to around 1,650 tons (a tenth of Liverpool's total) and in the late 1750s Chester's 1,000-1,400 tons was scarcely a twentieth of Liverpool's fleet. Efforts were made to improve the Dee by dredging a "new cut" in the estuary and cutting the canal, but the decline of traditional industry and trade continued. However, the passenger trade to Ireland remained important.

The guild system in Chester continued well into the 18th Century, with the Tanners being particularly active in maintaining their monopoly. In the 1710s, in concert with tanners' guilds in London and elsewhere, it campaigned against new taxes on leather and sought to restrict the export of oak bark to Irish competitors. However the inward Irish linen trade grew as did the outward export of cheese, particularly to London. The corporation had become somewhat corrupt: in 1698 it formally abolished annual elections, restored 17 ex-councilmen, co-opted 23 others, and confirmed the existing 22 aldermen in office for life. A major theme in the history of Georgian Chester is the rise to prominence of the Grosvenors who started the period as baronets and ended it as marquesses. In effect, the Grosvenors took over the role of the Earls of Chester, even though that title was generally held by the Prince of Wales.

By 1700, the central "shopping" area was becoming defined with the beginnings of the later separation of high-class retailers and more workaday shops in distinct areas of the city. The "better-class" shops were now beginning to cluster in Eastgate Street. The Georgian period saw most of the "medieval" frontages re-done in brick. Many of these survive today, even if some of these have been re-covered with "mock Tudor", either in an elegant manner or simply by "nailing on planks and boards". The cultural life of Chester in the century after the Restoration reflected its growing importance as a social centre for the gentry of the surrounding area and as a place where many leisured families resided. The walls were increasingly used for recreation by visitors and residents alike after the city had them repaired and flagged from 1707. Chester's principal attractions for outsiders were the races and the fairs, especially the Midsummer fair, where entertainments were put on by the 1710s.

Perhaps the best-known change wrought in the Georgian period was the Industrial Revolution, but this largely passed Chester by, especially in comparison with the massive commercial and industrial growth in Manchester and Liverpool. Several reasons can be put forward for this lack of industry: Chester had neither coal nor the possibility of building an extensive harbour. Communications were generally poor, although the Georgian period did see efforts to correct this with the navigation of the River Dee and an initially unsuccessful canal. There also appears to be a notable lack of industry amongst those with the means to invest. With the exception of the Leadworks no new heavy industry became established at Chester and traditional trades such as Tanning stagnated and then declined through the Georgian period. The Georgian period also saw changes in the attitudes towards the poor and the sick as it was within this time that Chester gained it's Infirmary, Workhouse and Asylum. As well as spending on "social" infrastructure, investment (and speculation) became major economic factors in Georgian times.

Another major change which occupied the Georgians was Parliamentary Reform. During most of the Georgian era Chester's two MP were Grosvenors who left a clear mark on the City. The end of the Grosvenor monopoly coincides roughly with the end of the Georgian era.

George I

George was born on 28 May 1660 in the city of Hanover in the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg in the Holy Roman Empire. He was the eldest son of Ernest Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and his wife, Sophia of the Palatinate. Sophia was the granddaughter of Stuart King James I of England through her mother, Elizabeth Stuart, "Winter Queen" of Bohemia. Politics in the early Georgian period was founded on rich politicians rather than a free popular vote, with only a few men controling most of the votes. As a very rough split, the Whigs drew their support from the mercantile classes while the Tories drew theirs from landowners. Whig (Liberal) politicians believed Parliament had the right to determine the succession, and to bestow it on the nearest Protestant relative of the Queen, while many Tories (Conservatives) were more inclined to believe in the hereditary right of the Catholic Stuarts, who were nearer relations. The Act of Settlement of 1701 provided for the succession after Queen Anne, whose only child to survive infancy (Prince William) had died of smallpox. Succession was fixed on Sophia of Hanover and her descendants. William III was closely involved in the formation of the act. Sophia had had grown up in the Netherlands close to William III and was able to converse fluently with him in Dutch, his native tongue. Sophia died two months before Queen Anne, who was already in poor health, leaving George as the heir.

Partly due to contrary winds, which kept him in The Hague awaiting passage, George did not arrive in Britain until 18 September 1714. George was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 20 October. His coronation was accompanied by the 1715 rioting in over twenty towns in England. George then dismissed the Tory cabinet and replaced it with one almost entirely composed of Whigs, as they were responsible for securing his succession. The election of 1715 saw the Whigs win an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, and afterwards virtually all Tories in central or local government were purged, leading to a period of Whig ascendancy lasting almost fifty years during which Tories were almost entirely excluded from office. Such had been the turmoil of the times that the first thing done by the new Whig administration was the passage of the Riot Act. The preamble makes reference to:

  • "many rebellious riots and tumults [that] have been [taking place of late] in diverse parts of this kingdom",

adding that those involved "presum[e] so to do, for that the punishments provided by the laws now in being are not adequate to such heinous offences". During the reign of George I the political power of the monarch was gradually diminished and that of his ministers, particularly Walpole, in effect the first "Prime Minister", gradually increased.

The Fable of the Bees by Bernard Mandeville illustrates the changes in social thought and the tensions which they created at the dawn of the Georgian period.
Religious tracts of the times promoted the idea that education of the poor was of social benefit.

The Bluecoat School

Standing just outside the Northgate in Chester, St John's Hospital is often overlooked as an important historic landmark. The most prominent part of the building dates from 1717, although the institution itself was founded a few years earlier in 1700. The architecture of the building is typical of the transition from the Baroque Neo-clasical late Stuart to the better known and plainer "mainstream" Georgian - brickmaking was still a bit "hit and miss" and so the corners are "rusticated" with stone quoins. The windows are arched and the frontage is decorated with pilasters.

The educational movement out of which the school arose is linked to the origins of the "Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge" (SPCK), founded in 1698 by Thomas Bray. The Chester school was founded by Bishop Nicholas Stratford (1689 to 1707). The concept of schools was not alien or even new for the people of the Georgian Era, even though it was fairly uncommon, however the first decades of the eighteenth century saw the foundation of numerous "charity schools" intended to provide elementary instruction for poor children. A rather negative interpretation is that such instruction was supposed to carefully prepare pupils to start working in the inferior role that had been alloted to them by Providence. Which is why it was important to get them into habits of industry, cleanliness, respect of order and punctuality from an early age. According to one view learning to read allowed them to find these precepts in the Bible, in the Anglican catechism, and in pious works. If they also knew how to write and count, they could be taken into service all the more favourably. The avowed aim of the charity schools was therefore sometimes expressed as a need to maintain social order, to fight against juvenile delinquency and to instil work ethics. Notably, the Chester school is located not far from the site of the "House of Correction" and the Northgate Jail.

The literature at the time of the school's founding shows a marked growth in the discussion of the concept of "liberty" which is characteristic of the Georgian period. During the first three decades of the century, charity schools had to defend themselves against scathing criticism, the most famous of which appears in the second edition of La Fable des Abeilles (The Fable of the Bees) by Bernard Mandeville. Mandeville's social theory and the thesis of the book (a sixpenny quarto, which was also pirated at a half-penny] is that society is an aggregation of self-interested individuals necessarily bound to one another neither by their shared civic commitments nor their moral rectitude, but, paradoxically, by the tenuous bonds of envy, competition and exploitation. In the 1723 edition, Mandeville added "An Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools". The main reproach directed at the charity schools was that they encouraged social mobility, upetting the social order by creating amongst the poor a need for material goods that society could not provide.

Mandeville's book, which must in part be seen as a clever satire, and may well have been written to make money for its author than for any more nable purpose, sparked a major debate about liberty, society and economics that was to run on through the entire Georgian period.

The Jacobites

In some ways the Georgian debate about liberty echoed the Stuart conflicts between whether King or Parliament should rule, or whether religion was a matter for law or individual choice.

The Jacobite rising of 1715 was the attempt by James Edward Stuart (the Old Pretender) to regain the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland for the exiled Stuarts. The rising should be seen in the context of the rioting which had taken place in association with the accession of George I and the replacement of the Tory administration by the Whigs. As onetime heir to the throne James was Prince of Wales from July 1688 until, just months after his birth, his Catholic father was deposed and exiled in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This also had made him earl of Chester. On 14 March 1715, James appealed to Pope Clement XI for help with a Jacobite rising:

  • "It is not so much a devoted son, oppressed by the injustices of his enemies, as a persecuted Church threatened with destruction, which appeals for the protection and help of its worthy pontiff"
The plaque at Recorders Steps - they were built in 1720, not 1700, and Comberbach had died before they were built.

Despite receiving no commission from James to start the rising, the Earl of Mar sailed from London to Scotland, and on 27 August at Braemar in Aberdeenshire held the first council of war. On 6 September at Braemar, Mar raised the standard of "James the 8th and 3rd", acclaimed by 600 supporters. By October, Mar's force, numbering nearly 20,000, had taken control of all Scotland above the Firth of Forth, apart from Stirling Castle. The Jacobites moved south into England with little opposition, and by the time they reached Preston, Lancashire had grown to about 4,000 in number. General Charles Wills was ordered to halt their advance, and left Manchester on 11 November with six regiments, arriving at Preston on 12 November and starting a series of street fights known as the battle of Preston. The Jacobites won the first day of fighting, but on 13 November, additional government forces arrived from Newcastle under George Carpenter, which Wills deployed to ensure the besieged Jacobites could not escape. Seeing that their position was hopeless, the Jacobites surrendered.

Despite its Tory inclinations and some sympathy for the Jacobites, Chester made no move in support of the rising of 1715. The defeat of the rebels at Preston spared it direct involvement in military operations, although its Militia was called up and government troops marched through. Captured Jacobites numbering up to 500 at a time were brought for temporary imprisonment at Chester, crowding Chester Castle and the city gaol and overflowing into houses throughout the city. Initially many perished of cold, hunger, and fever because local sympathizers were prevented from assisting them:

  • "The weather was very severe, and the snow lay a yard deep in the roads. Many of the above mentioned prisoners died in the castle by the severity of the season; many were carried off by a very malignant fever; and most of the survivors were transported to the plantations in America. As the castle was quite filled with these prisoners, the Lent assizes were held at Nantwich" (Hemingway)

Two regiments were kept at Chester for almost a year, and there was some friction between civil and military authorities. The recorder, Roger Comberbach, who had shown ostentatious enthusiasm for the Hanoverians, fell foul of the colonel commanding at the castle in 1715 in a dispute over jurisdiction, and was briefly placed under house arrest in humiliating circumstances before the colonel was himself removed. Recorder Roger Comberbach was possibly to become a symbol of the independence of the city as in 1720 the Recorders Steps were built and a legend developed that they had been built for Comberbach, although he died in 1719.

The Grosvenors

Richard Grosvenor by Charles Jervas in Chester Town Hall.

The Grosvenors of Eaton, near Chester, were a Cheshire family of great antiquity and substantial fortune, derived mainly from Welsh lead mines. Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet had build a substantial house at Eaton and had become involved in local politics. In 1676 the then 21-year old Thomas married Mary Davies, the 12-year old heiress to London estates covering a large part of modern Mayfair, Belgravia, and Pimlico, which increased the Grosvenor income from about £4,500 to £22,000 p.a. in 1742. Thomas died in 1700 leaving three minor sons, Richard, Thomas and Robert, and a daughter Anne, who all grew up under the care of Francis Cholmondeley, M.P., uncle of Charles Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, their mother having been declared mentally deranged.

The youth of the sons meant a brief pause in the the Grosvenor's occupancy of at least one of the two Chester MP seats. The replaceement was Sir Henry Bunbury the first member of his family to enter the Commons, Bunbury was descended from a gentry family which had been established at Stanney since the 12th century. His family gained the manor of Little Stanney by marriage during the 14th century and gradually expanded their landholdings in the county so that by the reign of Elizabeth I they owned land in 13 townships, including the borough of Chester. Some indication of Bunbury’s character as a young man is given by the claim of his 19th-century descendant that the Irish playwright George Farquhar based the character of "Sir Harry Wildair" in "The Constant Couple" upon Bunbury, a role which made the actor Robert Wilks famous. Farquhar described Wildair as "an airy gentleman, affecting humorous gaiety and freedom in his behaviour", and though there is no contemporary confirmation that Wildair was modelled upon Bunbury it is the case that the play of 1699 in which Wildair first appeared was dedicated to the Cheshire Tory Sir Roger Mostyn, 3rd Bt, suggesting that Farquhar may have been acquainted with Bunbury. It is clear that Bunbury played a full role in the busy social life of the Cheshire elite, and once he had entered the Commons he frequently preferred the company of a bottle of claret and his Cheshire circle to attendance at the early weeks of parliamentary sessions. Bunbury’s decision to enter Parliament suggests, however, that his nature was not entirely frivolous. This aspiration was first suggested in October 1700 by his admission to the freedom of Chester, and following his success at the contested election of January 1701 Bunbury held his seat until the death of George I.

In 1715 one of the Grosvenor sons, Richard, was returned as MP for Chester and in the same year he was elected as mayor of the city. He had been a minor at the time of his father's death and on completing his education had taken the famous "Grand Tour" - an educational rite of passage which had started at the time of the Restoration. The historian Edward Gibbon remarked that "According to the law of custom, and perhaps of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman".

The Grosvenor interest, having reasserted itself, held at least one of the Chester seats continuously until 1874. Richard Grosvenor appears to have had Jacobite sympathies. In September 1715 he attended a meeting of the Jacobite Cheshire Club, when it decided not to take part in the rebellion of that year. His name was included in a list of Jacobite leaders sent to the Pretender in 1721, and in 1730 he was in correspondence with the Stuart court at Rome through the Duchess of Buckingham. The supposed "prophecies" of Robert Nixon may have emerged at this time. Ther are other links between Cheshire and the Jacobites: Francis Cholmondeley had refused to take the oaths to William and Mary and was encouraged in his Stuart sympathies by his relation Sir Philip Egerton.

From the 1710s the Grosvenors repeatedly intervened in the city's affairs. It has been argued that their patronage had an overtly political purpose to dominate the Assembly and monopolize Chester's parliamentary representation. Attempts to break their power were always thwarted, despite popular support and the presence within the corporation of a faction opposed to Grosvenor influence. Their growing interest in monopolizing parliamentary elections led the Grosvenors to try packing the body of freemen with supporters. Normally the Assembly admitted many new freemen before an election. Some were members of the county gentry and their dependants, many of whom resigned the freedom as soon as the election was over. Most, however, were inhabitants of Chester and its environs, entitled to the freedom by descent or apprenticeship but unwilling or unable to take it up until the Grosvenors paid the fees. The total numbers admitted in election years could be very large, as for example 338 by birth and 162 by apprenticeship in 1720, and c. 450 and c. 175 in 1732. As well as vote rigging there were many other dubious examples of patronage: clerk of the Pentice Roger Comberbach (d. 1720 - he of the "Recorder's Steps"), was followed by his son-in-law Thomas Mather, but when Mather died in 1745 William Falconer was chosen on the recommendation of Sir Robert Grosvenor. Comberbach arranged in 1712 for the clerkship of the Pentice to be granted for life to his son, also Roger, then aged 19, jointly with Thomas Lloyd. Lloyd had a deputy by 1735 and died in 1754, after which in 1757 the younger Comberbach took out a new life-grant jointly with Thomas Brock, this time recommended by a later Sir Richard Grosvenor. Electoral "corruption" and violence during elections was a standard feature of the goverment of Chester throughout the Georgian period.

It was under the earlier Richard Grosvenor that the family fortunes began to sky-rocket with the development of land in London. On 12 July 1725 the Daily Post, a London newspaper, reported:

  • The several new streets designed in Grosvenor Buildings in the Parish of St. George, Hanover Square, and lying between New Bond Street and Hyde Park were last week particularly named; upon which occasion Sir Richard Grosvenor, Bart, gave a very splendid entertainment to his tenants and others concerned with those buildings ... In the centre of those new buildings there is now making a new square called Grosvenor Square [with gardens designed by William Kent], which for its largeness and beauty will far exceed any yet made in or about London.

Grosvenor Square (the second largest garden square in central London) was one of the three or four most fashionable residential addresses in London from its construction until the Second World War, with numerous leading members of the aristocracy in residence.

The South West Prospect of the City of Chester 1728 - for some reason this shows the wall from the Watertower to the Old Dee Bridge zig-zagging about.

The Walls

Despite the revolts of the Jacobites by around 1720 it had become clear that the City Walls no longer served a significant defensive purpose. In that year the walls were connected to The Groves by the Recorder's Steps. Mansions were now being built in the area between St Johns and the River Dee, outside of the Walls and not protected by them. In 1725, Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) visited Chester and wrote:

  • "The walls, as I have said, are in very good repair, and it is a very pleasant walk around the city and within the battlements".

Defoe's work illustrates the social, political and economic thought of his times. "Robinson Crusoe" is often said to be the first English novel (published 1719 - there are some earlier female "novelists"). Crusoe's first adventuires on the island foreshadow Maslow's "heirarchy of needs": escaping drowing, finding water and food, building a shelter and establishing a relationship with Friday. The later part of the story (the "Farther Adventures"), which is less familiar, has Crusoe return to his island and attempt to improve the life of its inhabitants by introducing education and a legal system. Having established his physical and social needs are fulfilled he then goes off on a voyage of self-discovery.

Mysticism in the early enlightenment was not dead, but there were to be no further witch trials. Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth Hicks have been referred to as the last people executed for witchcraft in England in 1716, just on the eve of the Georgian era. Scientific rationalism now flourished, but there was a parallel development of the semi-mystical. By 1725 the city had three separate masonic lodges, more than in any other provincial town, who met at the Sun, Spread Eagle, and Castle and The Falcon inns. Membership had shifted decisively towards country gentlemen, members of the urban élite, and army officers from the garrison. The master of the Sun lodge, Colonel Francis Columbine, was the first Provincial Grand Master in the country. While masonics flourished, some other forms of "spiriual" dissent, including catholicism, did not:

  • "A private soldier received 900 lashes and was drummed out of his regiment with rope about his neck having been found guilty of being a Papist."

From the 1720s, the Assemby seldom met more than twice or thrice a year, attended by only half or two thirds of the full complement of 70 or more. From the late 1740s attendance was often low enough to allow sittings during the colder months to be held in the inner Pentice rather than the larger (and colder) common hall at the Exchange.

George II (11 June 1727 – 25 October 1760)

By the time of the death of George I a general theme emerges for Chester which persists for the next 100 years. Parliament had become the established form of national government, but the electorate was very limited and effectively controlled in Chester by the Grosvenors. Local government appears to have been completely undemocratic and barely effective at anything other than maintaining local privileges. Some of the poor were being educated by charities and viewed as something more than manual labour or cannon-fodder and the need for investment in infrastructure such as the improvement of the River Dee was recognised, although the Assembly had neither the means or the ability to provide for it. The military significance of Chester had waned and Chester Castle was beginning to develop into a gaol to protect the establishment against internal social threats rather than external aggressors. The City Walls, Chester's most noted infrastructure project to date, had begun to develop into a promenade, while nearby Liverpool was investing heavily in the development of its docks.

George II suppressed his father's will because it attempted to split the Hanoverian succession between George II's future grandsons rather than vest all the domains (both British and Hanoverian) in a single person. Both British and Hanoverian ministers considered the will unlawful, as George I did not have the legal power to determine the succession personally. Critics supposed that George II hid the will to avoid paying out his father's legacies. George II had been made Prince of Wales when his father arrived in Britain to become George I (1714) but appears to have never been Earl of Chester. In effect, the Grosvenor's had become de facto the Earls of Chester.

Political chicanery continued in Chester. In 1732 the Whigs tried to win over the mayor of 1731-2 (Trafford Massie) by offering clerical preferment for his son. Shortly before the election in 1732 the Whig candidate for mayor left £100 in gold with Massie in return for a written promise to call no further Assemblies. Meanwhile sporadic disorders culminated in a clash in Bridge Street in early October between a Whig mob (allegedly reinforced with disguised soldiers, revenue officers, and Liverpool sailors) and Tory supporters who included Welsh miners. The latter came off worse, and the Whigs broke into and wrecked the Pentice. The mayor called for dragoons from Warrington to help restore order and appointed c. 270 special constables. The violence shocked the faction leaders into a truce, but when polling was adjourned the Whigs, supposing that their man had won, pursued the mayor and justices into the coffee house under the Exchange and carried off the mayoral sword and mace.

In 1733, incensed by the Tories' allegedly irregular co-option of Sir Robert Grosvenor and his ally Watkin Williams Wynn as aldermen, the Whigs went to law to assert the rule of election by freemen laid down in 1506; a jury of Cheshire gentlemen, however, basing themselves on a "lost" (and conveniently now found) order of 1525, ruled that the charter's terms should be overridden by constant practise. From 1734 the Tories also adjusted the method of electing the mayor and the freemen's sheriff, thenceforth entirely excluding the freemen; later mayors were normally chosen in order of seniority of their membership of the Assembly. Several times the mayoralty was held by the Grosvenors or their aristocratic or gentry allies in the county, two serving successively in 1736-8, and three between 1759 and 1762. By then the next mayor but one was also being formally designated at the time of his predecessor's election. Only twice, in 1744 and 1784, did open division among the aldermen permit the freemen to vote.

The New Cut

A very approximate schematic of the Chester end of the River Dee Navigation (thick blue line) showing the dates on which various polders were drained. The location of Roman Chester is shown as a red rectangle.

Chester as a port was still declining. Plans to improve the navigation of the River Dee dated back to the 1670's. In 1700 an Act of Parliament (11 & 12 Wil. III. C. 24, R. A. 11th Apr) "An Act to enable the Mayor and Citizens of Chester to recover and preserve the Navigation of the River Dee", was passed as regards the construction of a channel in the Dee. The preamble of this stated:

  • "That the river was theretofore navigable for ships and vessels of a considerable burthen from the sea up to the City of Chester, but that but by neglect of the said river, and for want of sufficient protection against the flux and reflux of the sea, the navigation to the city was almost lost and destroyed."

Pamphleteers from 1699 placed the blame for the silting of the Dee on colliers returning from Dublin, who discharged their ballast in the "Wild Road" (a channel of the river) and this then became trapped in the numerous nets placed by fishermen. Prior to this ships coming from Ireland need not be in ballast due to the import of cattle. The stoppage of the cattle trade occurred in 1680, when the Cattle Act, forbidding the import of Irish live cattle, sheep, pigs, beef, pork or bacon was made permanent, following the petitions of graziers in England who had vociferously argued for the trade to be stopped. The Act of 1700 empowered the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Councillors of Chester to appoint seven Commissioners, of whom the Mayor and two Justices of the Peace should be three, to trace the course of the new channel which was to be cut by Gell. If there were disputes over compensation, the Corporation should choose three arbitrators and the persons complaining three. Appeal lay to the Chief Justice of Chester. The tolls were limited to 1d a barrel of coal and 2d a barrel of lime brought to the city by land or water and there unloaded. The duty on coal brought by land was explained on the ground:

  • “there’s nothing can come by water which will bear the charge.”

George Sorocold, who could be considered Britain's first "civil engineer", was paid £20 to propose improvements to the river in 1706, but, possibly due in part to frenzied investing elsewhere and then the "credit crunch" of that time, following the collapse of the "South Sea Bubble", nothing was then done until 1732 when a further survey was carried out by John Mackay. In the meantime the improvements to the River Weaver meant that rock salt (which had been discovered near Northwich in 1670) led to increasing trade following the Weaver, down the Mersey and thence to Liverpool. The craft which plied this trade returned back up the Weaver Navigation with coal from the south Lancashire coalfields, and this coal was used for boiling more brine to produce more salt.

In 1733 the Merchant Venturers of Chester obtained an Act of Parliament authorising a 'New Cut' under the supervision of the marine engineer Nathaniel Kindersley. "The first sod of the new channel of the river Dee was taken up by R Manley Esq April 20th".

Unfortunately the commissioners were more interested in making money from the sale of reclaimed land than on providing and maintaining a quality water-way. An Act of 1744 had empowered the Corporation to appoint one of two supervisors who were to take soundings in the river and report to the city or county justices if at three successive tides the depth of the channel fell below 15 ft - the corporation of Chester made no effort to appoint anyone until 1799, by which time the Dee Navigation Company had apparently taken the clandestine step of removing the "standard" by which the depth of the water was to be measured. As the "standard" was mentioned in the Act setting up the duties of the River Dee Company, the fact that it had "vanished" meant that they could always say that it was impossible to prove they had not carried out these duries - and argue that any "new standard" was wrongly placed.

John Fletcher in a portrait from the Town Hall. As the editor of the Chester Chronicle newspaper, Fletcher criticised the election procedures of the Assembly and was thrown into prison for libel.

Newspapers in Chester

Initially there was little increase in cultural interests or literary habits, though enough business for stationers and perhaps bookbinding and basic printing. In the earlier 18th century there were usually at least two Booksellers, handling the scholarly libraries of deceased local clergy and gentlemen. From the early 1710s one or two worked their own presses, producing mostly sermons and other religious and educational works. One also began to print books in Welsh. Government censorship before publication had ended in Britain when the Licensing Act lapsed in 1695. Simultaneously, the London stationers' company lost its monopoly of publishing and presses multiplied. An explosion of newspapers, pamphlets, books, serials, advertising and ephemera was the result.

For most of the 17th century, only one, semi-official, newspaper had been tolerated. The first daily paper appeared in London in 1702; by 1792 there were 16. London papers circulated in the provinces, but local newspapers also sprang up in almost every major provincial town by the 1730s. William Cooke started a local newspaper for Chester in 1721, rivalled from 1732 and then driven out of business by another, later the Chester Courant, founded by Roger Adams and continued by his widow Elizabeth and her successors into the late 18th century. The relaxation of censorship encouraged the riotous reproduction of visual satire, from political cartoons to mockery of manners and morals. Hogarth started his working life as an engraver, not a painter.

1745 saw the production of the first "modern" map of Chester, the Lavaux Map surveyed and drawn by Alexander de Lavaux, engineer and surveyor. As well as naming the owners of many houses, the plan includes informative details such as the "North Gate May Pole" and the "Water Engine". This is a rare, important plan of Chester and one of the earliest large scale plans of the city. Lavaux's past before Chester was not without incident. Alexander De Lavaux was born in Berlin and had at his entrance into Prussian service had the rank of lieutenant and engineer. In 1729, at the age of 25 he was employed by the Dutch "Society of Suriname". With an appointment as cartographer in Suriname he was given the rank of ensign. He made ​​several campaigns against the "Maroons", and produced a first map of the Suriname River. In 1731 the Directors of the Society of Suriname discovered that the existing maps were not of sufficient quality to indicate the condition of the land and the location of the plantations. By May 1734 Lavaux had been working for over two years on a new and accurate map of Suriname. In 1725 he visited Amsterdam, was promoted to captain and went back to Suriname. He did not get on with the new Governor (Gerrit van de Schepper?) and in 1741 deserted without warning on an English ship to St. Eustatius and then to the British colony of Saint Christopher (now St. Kitts). At the end of 1741 he was extradited by and put in prison at Fort Zeelandia. It took until June 1743 for the court-martial verdict (which demanded a death penalty). Lavaux meanwhile was diagnosed as insane (presumably due to prison conditions). The sentence was commuted in 1744 to expulsion from the military service and banishment from Suriname.

Within two years Lavaux must have traveled to Chester and begun work on his map. Lavaux's reasons for coming to Chester remain unknown, but the map is dedicated to George Cholmondeley, who was Vice Admiral of Cheshire at the time, and appears to have Dutch ancestry through his mother.

Owen Jones

In around 1744 lead was discovered on the land bequeathed to the city by Owen Jones and his bequest now became a much more valuable property. From the 1740s the Corporation connived with the Guilds' misapplication of the Owen Jones charity, who by the 1780s were dividing the proceeds indiscriminately among their members, whether poor or rich, as each guild came round in rotation. Admission to the guilds was closely regulated (see: Charters), some choosing to admit new members at inflated premiums, others to exclude new guildsmen as their own turn for the "bonanza" approached.

More Jacobites

Alexander de Lavaux's plan to strengthen the fortifications at Chester Castle to resist assault by cannon, which was never put into effect.

George II's French opponents encouraged a further rebellion by the Jacobites. In July 1745, the Old Pretender's son, Charles Edward Stuart, popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender, landed in Scotland, where support for his cause was highest. George, who was summering in Hanover, returned to London at the end of August. The Jacobites defeated British forces in September at the Battle of Prestonpans, and then moved south into England. A part of the Cheshire Militia was brought in to garrison the city and business came to a standstill. The city gates were bricked up, save for wickets at the Bridgegate and Eastgate, the walls were patrolled, cannon were mounted to command the bridge, and the Chester Castle defences were improved. The spring assizes were held at Flookersbrook in Hoole. George Cholmondeley put Chester in a state of defence, repairing the castle’s defences and adding raised batteries in the inner and outer wards and a raised platform with a parapet south-east of the Great Hall. The military architect Alexander de Lavaux was engaged to draw up a plan to strengthen the fortifications, with massive earthworks in the form of a "star fort", but the work was never carried out.

On the march south, the Council met daily to discuss strategy, and at Derby on 5 December, its members overwhelmingly counselled retreat, the only significant dissenter being Charles. There was no sign of the promised French landing, and despite the large crowds that turned out to see them, only Manchester provided a significant number of recruits; Preston, a Jacobite stronghold in 1715, supplied three. Despite some early assistance, the French reneged on a promise of help. Losing morale, the Jacobites retreated back into Scotland. Charles faced George's military-minded son Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, in the Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle fought on British soil. The ravaged Jacobite troops were routed by the government army. Charles escaped to France, but many of his supporters were caught and executed. Jacobitism was all but crushed; no further serious attempt was made at restoring the House of Stuart. Although the Jacobite army went nowhere near Chester, the city had been involved in heavy expense and had to turn to Sir Robert Grosvenor to obtain reimbursement from the government in 1746.

Religious Movements

Until the 1750s there was no permanently resident Catholic priest in Chester, masses being said either by a gentleman's chaplain, typically from Hooton Hall in Wirral or the Fitzherberts' house. From 1758, however, an almost continuous series of settled priests can be traced. Until 1838 they were normally Lancastrians trained in the English seminary at Douai (Nord) or its successors, Crook Hall (in Brancepeth, co. Dur.) and Ushaw College (in Lanchester, co. Dur.). A permanent chapel was probably in use from the 1750s and by 1789 services were held in an upper room in Foregate Street. In 1799 the congregation built and registered a chapel near by on the west side of Queen Street. It was perhaps largely paid for by the Irish merchants who headed the list of those for whom perpetual masses were afterwards said. They were very likely men who frequented Chester on business, such as in the linen trade, rather than permanent residents.

The late Georgian newspaper editor Hemingway wrote several useful books on Chester, but was something of a snob and had a poor view of Catholics, the Irish and the "Lower Orders" in general. In Volume II of his "History of the City of Chester", which is largely concerned with religious history, the Catholics get six lines. The Catholic population would not grow significantly until after the Irish famines of the 1820's and their growth is detailed in Victorian Chester. The Georgian era is characterised by a general movement away from the ritual and ceremony of the earlier church, especially among the poorer sections of society. The Anglican church was somewhat ossified:

  • "The bishops were still amiable scholars who lived in dignified ease apart from their clergy, attended the king’s levee regularly, voted steadily in Parliament for the party of the minister who had appointed them, entertained the country gentry when Parliament was not sitting, wrote learned books on points of classical scholarship, and occasionally were seen driving in state through the muddy country roads on their way to the chief towns of their dioceses to hold a confirmation. Of spiritual leadership they had but little idea." (Henry Wakeman)

The development of Nonconformism was in part driven by the Industrial Revolution and the movement of populations from rural to urban living. A relatively thin-spread country population could simply not support any kind of dissenting religious movement. Chester remained a centre of predominantly Presbyterian Dissent for some time after Matthew Henry's departure in 1712 (he was later to die while visiting Cheshire, hence his burial in Holy Trinity). William Armitage's appointment as pastor of the Commonhall Street Independent church in 1772 marked the beginnings of modern Congregationalism in Chester. In 1776, when it numbered c. 78 members, the congregation decided on new buildings in Queen Street. A brick chapel accommodating c. 900, a vestry, and a minister's house were built and services began on the new site in 1777. Congregationalism briefly became fashionable in Chester between 1813 and 1818 and eventually (1838) they also built a chapel in Queen Street. Only the frontage of the Independent chapel in Queen Street survives but it is another, if some what out of the way, example of very late Georgian architecture. Philip Oliver (1763–1800), a descendant of the Chester puritan John Bruen, was ordained by Bishop Porteous of Chester in 1787 and licensed to the chapelry of Bruera. After a period of poor health he re-emerged among the religious groups in Queen Street and then in 1793 began to conduct his own services on Sunday evenings at Boughton, from whence he was ejected by his landlord for "enthusiastic" bell-ringing. The major success in terms of dissenters in Chester appears to have been the Methodists: there was a society in the city by 1747, when it was visited by the itinerant preacher John Bennet (1715–59), who reported to John Wesley that the inhabitants received him gladly and were anxious for a visit from Wesley himself. At first, in 1752 the society moved to a barn at St. Martin's Ash, in which shortly afterwards Wesley held a well attended meeting on the occasion of his first visit to the city. His preaching aroused opposition and after his departure a local mob with the connivance of the mayor wrecked the barn. There is some suggestion that Wesley may have actually visited Chester in October 1749 when he is reported as preaching under a large oak tree at Peckforton, but most consider 1752 to be his first "official" visit to the city itself.

Chester, the Americas and India

Due in part to its location on the borders of the Irish Sea and also perhaps due in part to a reluctance on the merchants of Chester to fund trans-atlantic vogages, Chester had comparatively little involvement in the colonisation of North America. It is known that some New England Puritans came from Chester or nearby, as at least one of the Bruens emigrated there. There are a plurality of "Chester"s in the United States, but few if any have a close connection with the original Chester, many appear to be named after other "Chester"'s in the US, although some have a loose connection. For example Chester, Illinois was founded by a Samuel Smith who's wife came from Chester. However, ships built in Chester were quite capable of making the voyage across the Altantic. One of the profitable side-lines of Chester ship-builders was the contruction of special ships for the slave trade.

The Cheshire Regiment played a small part in the various North American conflicts, but were also involved in many other military affairs. As the 22nd Regiment of Foot they first saw action in America during the French and Indian War. Briefly garrisoned in and around New York City in January 1757, the Regiment moved north to Halifax in July. In 1758 The 22nd formed part of Lord Amherst’s expedition against the fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The French and Indian War was the North American aspect of the Seven Years War (1756–1763), a conflict which brought Britain close to bankruptcy and was essentially a struggle for global supremacy with France. This was not the only wide ranging conflict of the times: hostilities also broke out with the Dutch, another of the major maritime nations. Just about the only global power not involved was Russia, who's entry into the conflict Britain was somewhat obsessed with. In 1759 Britain enjoyed an Annus Mirabilis, with success over the French on the continent (Germany), in North America (capturing the capital of New France), and in India. In 1761 Britain also came into conflict with Spain. The following year British forces captured Havana and Manila, the western and eastern capitals of the Spanish Empire, and repulsed a Spanish invasion of Portugal. By this time the Pitt-Newcastle ministry had collapsed, Britain was short of credit and the generous peace terms offered by an exhausted France and its allies were accepted. The outcome of this related series of wars was that Britain was to lose significant parts of its "empire" in North America, and increase its power in India.

1759 in Chester saw the opening of the Neston Colliery, which had a steam engine, the first in west Cheshire. James Brindley may have been involved in a plan to build a canal there. Brindley's main contact in Chester appears to have been the entrepreneurial Chester silversmith, lead-mine developer and former mayor, Richard Richardson, who also led the early coal-mining development at Neston. The silver gallery at the Grosvenor Museum has three cases dedicated to the work of the Richardsons. The involvement of silverstimths in the lead-mining industry makes sense as some silver is a by-product of lead smelting. Several others of the wealthier families in Chester has the origins of their wealth in Welsh lead, including the Panton's (see: Hoole).

War was therfore an almost continuous feature of the Georgian period, but apart from the failed Jacobite risings was almost always fought abroad. While other European powers fought for land and the preservation of the hegemony of their leaders the rulership of the Hanoverian kings was never challenged. The British government and the merchants became partners with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires. The government spent much of its revenue on a large and powerful Royal Navy, which not only protected the British colonies but threatened the colonies of the other empires, and sometimes seized them. The colonies were captive markets for British industry, and the goal was to enrich the mother country. Most of the companies earned good profits, and enormous personal fortunes were created in India - where a single voyage (see: Grosvenor Treasure) could rake in vast profits. A failed voyage could bring ruin, but speculation was very much the spirit of the age.

Chester took little direct part in this mercantile frenzy, although it enjoyed some secondary benefits. The fortunes made far afield would have flowed into the pockets of the Grosvenors through their land ownership in London. The Leadworks supplied shot and cheese was supplied to the Royal Navy. No doubt many of the wealthier families in Chester had money based in part upon foreign trade, but there are few examples of a Cestrian business having world-wide renown or a family or individual being noted for their overseas earnings.

John Haygarth (1740 – 10 June 1827) - an important 18th-century British physician who discovered new ways to prevent the spread of fever among patients and reduce the mortality rate of smallpox. He was born at Garsdale, near Sedbergh, in a house where his grandparents' initials can still be seen above the door. He worked at the Infirmary in Chester for 30 years.


The Infirmary was founded in 1755 following a bequest by Dr William Stratford, who had died two years earlier. It was funded by public subscriptions, and was free to patients who were recommended by the subscribers. It was originally housed in temporary accommodation in part of Bluecoat School (St John's Hospital). Construction of the permanent building was started in 1758, and was completed in 1761. It was designed by William Yoxall, and the interior was remodelled in 1830 by William Cole, junior. Cooke describes it as follows:

  • "On the west side of the Shambles is Parsons lane or Princes street leading to a pleasant and airy range of building called St Martin's in the Fields opposite to which adjoining to the walls stands in a most delightful and salubrious situation - the Infirmary - a very spacious and elegant building erected in the year 1761 the comfortable retreat of disease and penury from every part of the county the city and North Wales." (in Cooke a printers error renders 1761 as 1701).

One of the most noted physicians to hold a post at the Infirmary was Dr John Haygarth. In 1778 Haygarth helped found the Smallpox Society of Chester; the group advocated variolation, a form of inoculation which uses a live pathogen, an unpopular position at the time, and tried to educate the populace so as to avoid casual contraction of the disease. Edward Jenner's work on vaccination only followed some twenty years later and Haygarth is largely forgotten. See the Infirmary and Pandemic pages for more detail.


In a watercolour by Moses Griffiths (1747-1819), the "House of Correction" is placed on the northern bank of the canal.

In 1759 the Chester "Poor-law Union Workhouse" was established. It was approached by a new road from outside the Watergate - later Paradise Row. Attitudes towards "vagrants" in Georgean Chester were somewhat different to those today, as was the definition of "vagrant". The 1744 Vagrancy Act listed who could be prosecuted under the law. These included (among others): charity collectors for prisons, gaols, or hospitals, all persons concerned with performing interludes, tragedies, comedies, operas, plays, farces or other entertainments for the stage, not being authorized by law, those pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or fortune telling and, all persons who run away and leave their wives and children. The 1713 and 1744 Vagrancy Acts also divided vagrants into three broad classifications: "Idle and Disorderly Persons", "Rogues and Vagabonds", "Incorrigible Rogues". A different punishment was specified for each. For the Idle and Disorderly, essentially the settled but unruly poor, a period of hard labour for up to one month in a House of Correction" was specified. For Rogues and Vagabonds, all the bear wards and minstrels, strolling players and jugglers listed in the Act, a public whipping followed by incarceration in a house of correction was mandated. These vagrants were also subject to a further examination at the next meeting of sessions, at which time they might be imprisoned and set to hard labour for a further six months. At the completion of their sentence rogues and vagabonds were either removed to their place of settlement by a pass, or if male and above twelve years old, sent to the army or navy.

In October 1691, the churchwardens of St Olave's parish requested the lease of land on which to build 'conveniencys' in order to set the poor to work. Following the Workhouse Test Act of 1723, several parish workhouses were set up in Chester. St Johns opened one in 1724, and there was one in Handbridge by 1730. Another existed in St Oswald's parish and, in 1751, Chester Cathedral opened its own poor-house. In 1757, a House of Industry for use by all the city's poor was opened on Kitchen Street at the north-west corner of the Roodee. In 1762, Chester formed an incorporation of parishes (Holy Trinity, St Bridget, St Johns, St Martin, St Mary on the Hill, St Michael, St Olave, St Oswald, and St Peter) under a local Act of Parliament which gave it greater freedom in the management of the city's poor relief. The incorporation was governed by the mayor, recorder, justices of the peace, and seventy-four other guardians. The Act also gave control of the Roodee workhouse for a period of 99 years.

Chester had a local peculiarity in the form of the "Minstrel Court" where musicians and prostitutes could obtain an annual licence (costing four old pence) which excluded them from penalty: this even made it onto the statute books: in the 1744 Vagrancy Act, (17 George II., c. 5.), the heirs and assigns of John Dutton, of Dutton, co. Chester, deceased, Esq., are stated to be "exempt from the pains and penalties of vagrancy". The last Minstrel Court was held in 1756. The Minstrel Court was revived in 2008, with musicians playing throughout the day on medieval instruments including bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, shawm, and harps, storytelling performances, displays of arming a knight, historic craft demonstrations and a range of medieval characters including soldiers, weavers, doctors, nuns, pilgrims and scribes.

George III (25 October 1760 - 29 January 1820)

George's life and reign, which were longer than those of any of his predecessors, were marked by a series of military conflicts involving his kingdoms, much of the rest of Europe, and places farther afield in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Early in his reign, Great Britain defeated France in the Seven Years' War, becoming the dominant European power in North America and India. However, many of Britain's American colonies were soon lost in the American War of Independence. Further wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France from 1793 concluded in the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Richard Grosvenor attributed to both Michael Dahl and Joshua Reynolds. He is a clear example of what "The fable of the bees" had called "Private vices and public benefits". He was MP for Chester in 1754 and continued to represent the city until he became Baron Grosvenor in the House of Lords. He was mayor of Chester in 1759. In 1769 he paid for the re-building of the Eastgate. Lord Grosvenor was infamous for his keeping "low company". He apparently liked getting his women from the filthiest parts of London. Ann Sheldon, his short-term companion, reported the pair of them had contracted lice following one of his amorous exploits.

From 1689 until 1761 the civil government of the City was carried on under the provisions of the Great Charter of Chester, but at that date an Act of Parliament was obtained "for the better regulating of the poor, maintaining a nightly watch, lighting, paving, and cleansing the streets, rows, and passages, and providing fire engines and firemen, and regulating the hackney-coachmen, chairmen, carters, and porters, within the City of Chester." After the establishment of the Reformed Corporation very few years elapsed before a school of election managers sprang up. This organization was not large in numbers, but by the skilful manipulation of the electorate, to which perhaps the indisposition of many to take part in these annual contests contributed, they wielded great power. Almost every ward had its price. These men could name a sum which would secure the return of a candidate quite irrespective of his fitness, and in this way men were introduced into the council, and ultimately to the highest offices. The principal weapon used in this peculiar warfare was beer, but, no doubt, the "Bashi-Bazouks", as these men were locally known, had their price in money. In 1784 the Grosvenors spent £24,000 in all, of which £15,000 (over £7 Million, in 2014 money) went on drink and £1,600 on yellow ribbons and cockades (their opponents sported blue and red). In 1812 the total came to £23,000. Treating, generosity to the poor at times when food was dear, paying admission fees for freemen, offering well paid employment during elections, and sponsoring public works were all part of the currency; when the machine moved up a gear in the 1810s and 1820s there was coercion and outright bribery.

In 1813 the Corporation got itself into a complete muddle as described by Hanshall:

  • "the Corporation nevertheless relying on the validity of their bye laws and ancient custom confirmed in 1735 continued to elect their own Members till 1813, when the Mayor S Bennett Esq in compliance with a requisition numerously signed called a Meeting of the Citizens at large and proceeded to elect Members of the Corporation under the provisions of the Charter of Henry VII. The Recorder and most of the Aldermen also proceeded to the Election of Civic Officers in the usual way at the same time and place by which Chester exhibitted the singular spectacle of two Corporate Bodies each claiming to be the Corporation of Chester. The New Corporation however did not act in its Civic and Judicial capacity although its Mayor Wm Seller Esq walked the Markets on the next Market Day. This state of things could not be expected to last and the question of Election was again sent to Shrewsbury for discussion. The trial came on on Saturday the 26th of March 1814 when the election of an Aldermant of the New Corporation was declared mull, not on the general question of the Charter, but on account of insufficiency of notice of the election and other less material irregularities."
The new Eastgate was paid for by Richard Grosvenor.

Outside of Chester the tides of change were significant. The "Industrial Revolution" was the emergence of improved manufacturing processes during the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Developments included, among others:

  • the canal network: (see: Canal and Boatyard) which allowed raw-materials and finished goods to be moved to and from specialised manufacturing locations;
  • hand production methods being replaced by the increased use of machines, including the development of machine tools. Mechanised cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of about 1000. The power loom increased the output of a worker by a factor of over 40. The cotton gin increased productivity of removing seed from cotton by a factor of 50. Gains in productivity also occurred in spinning and weaving of the Chester "staples" wool and linen, but they were not as great as in cotton.
  • new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes;
  • improved efficiency of water power;
  • the increasing use of steam power: following it's introduction the efficiency of steam engines increased so that they used between one-fifth and one-tenth as much fuel. Steam allowed the development and expansion of railways (see: Chester Station), leading to a Railway "Mania" humourously recollected in the "Hunting of the Snark" (..They threatened its life with a railway share..);
  • the change from wood and other (mostly renewable) bio-fuels to coal: for a given amount of heat, coal required much less labour to mine than cutting wood, and coal was more abundant than wood.
  • Urbanisation, as workers moved from agriculture to better-paid factory work.

The Canal

The "New Cut" briefly re-vitalised Chester as a Port, but in the 1770's a canal was needed to expand the Port's hinterland. Originally intended to go to Middlewich, this route was blocked by the Trent and Mersey Canal Company and the Chester Canal became an unsuccessf "dead-end" leading to Nantwich. In the 1790's, the proposed Ellesmere-Mersey canal was planned to link Shrewsbury with Liverpool; its route being down the Wirral to Chester, on to Wrexham and Ruabon and then on through Chirk towards Shrewsbury. The northern section of that canal joined the Chester Canal near its connection with the Riven Dee at Chester. Building Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805 almost ruined the Ellesmere Canal company leaving them with a 17-mile gap between Chester and Ruabon and no money. The Chester Canal was now brought back from dereliction as the central secion of the Ellesmere canal forming much of what was to become the Shropshire Union Canal.

The Northgate Staircase Locks were the deepest in Britain when they were built (to the desgin of Thomas Telford) and are unusual in that they are cut out of solid rock. A walk along the Canalside gives a useful insight into the industrial history of Chester.

In the late 18th and early 19th century Chester was not a propitious place in which to establish new industries. It was not on a coalfield, and water power was restricted to the weir on the Dee, which was affected by the tide. The hinterland was mainly rural and was poorly served by transport. A Leadworks was opened in 1800, but there seems also to have been a lack of enterprise on the part of Cestrians, and the residual power of the city guilds may have restrained development. They certainly opposed the Leadworks on the grounds that the proprietor was not a member of any of the guilds. It was observed in 1814 that:

  • "corporate privileges are not often calculated to foster commerce, and in this city, although we mark the infancy of several manufactures, few arrive at maturity" (Wardle and Bentham's Commercial Guide, 1814).

The influence of the guilds did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due mainly to their subvention by the Owen Jones charity. Their final decay came about in part because of restrictions on membership imposed in order to maximize existing members' benefits from the charity, but their authority was destroyed finally in 1825 when an unsuccessful case was brought against a tanner for trading when not a freeman. While the Corporation was strongly in favour of the intended canal to Nantwich and beyond, it was a heavy investor through the Owen Jones charity in the company's shares, thus risking (and eventually losing) £2000 of the funds of the charity (about 2 million in 2016 money) rather than its own. Frank Simpson wrote of the charity:

  • "About this time (1773) many were admitted into the Companies through favour, for the sole purpose of partaking of the Bequest, and others were kept out by the demand of arbitrary fees; although many well-to-do citizens partook of the distribution, they gave receipts for their shares describing themselves “poor brothers."

In 1792 when the Owen Jones payout came to the Bricklayers £203 11s was paid out to the 12 members of that company of which half were Bodens. In 1798 the distribution of the funds from the Charity to the "Poor Bretheren" was £19.50 per head. In terms of comparing wages, this is the same as at least £20,000 in 2016 money, and the "Poor Bretheren" included the then Mayor of Chester (Thomas Barnes Esq), his son (Thomas jnr), and possibly at least one other family member (both Samuel and Benjamin Barnes are amongst the 19 member who benefited). The only beneficiary who did not get £19.50 was "Widow Dawson", who got £1 1s. In addition there were £5 spent on refreshments, £14 in other disbursements.

Writing in an 1836 guide to the walls of Chester Hemingway states:

  • "The canal from Chester to Nantwich runs parallel with this part of the walls passes through Great Boughton, Christleton, Waverton, Hargreave, Huxley, Beeston, Tiverton, Tilston, Ternhall, Wardle, Barbridge, Stoke, Hurdleston, and Acton to Nantwich. The act for cutting it passed in 1772 and it was finished in 1778. This canal was for many years an unproductive speculation to the proprietors. Shares of 100 were at one time sold for a mere trifle or rather given away. Of late years however they have considerably risen in value in consequence of junctions being formed with other canals "

Several important commercial buildings were put up to serve the cloth fairs of the later 18th century. They included the New Linenhall, a large rectangular brick building comprising small shops around a courtyard and erected in 1778 on the eastern half of the Greyfriars site. The lane leading to the Crofts, Lower Lane, was renamed Linenhall Street and perhaps remodelled. In the early 19th century similar structures of brick with galleried courtyards were built on either side of Foregate Street: the Union Hall (1809) to the south and Commercial Hall (1815) to the north.


Thomas Baldwin's aerial view of Chester which can be seen, together with the River Dee in the corner of this engraving based on his sketch. This is believed to be the first ever actual view of the earth from above.

Chester of around 1785 would have had parts which would be recognisable to the modern inhabitant. The four main streets had existed since Roman times, and many of them housed coaching inns, although the travel time to London was had only just come down to a record 22 hours and 45 minutes. Much of the Norman castle remained although Thomas Harrison's comprehensive rebuild had not yet started. The medieval Eastgate and more recently the Bridgegate had been replaced, the Watergate would follow in 1788 as it was runinous, and the Chester Canal had opened (a venture which would soon fail). There was as yet no Leadworks, but some new life had stirred at the Portpool and one of the very first industrial steam engines was about to be installed in Chester. The Grosvenors had just spent £24,000 on winning the general election, of which £15,000 went on drink: the Corporation, from local pride, loyalty to aristocratic patrons, a shared belief in arch-Tory values, and, perhaps most importantly, a very obvious material advantage, co-operated willingly. Despite the rise of Liverpool and Manchester, Chester still dominated the economy of the western half of Cheshire and north-east Wales, and provided a focus for the leisured classes of a much larger area. The Industrial Revolution would largely pass by Chester as it faded slowly. There was still money about: the recently repaired City Walls were a promenade for the wealthy gentry who had recently subscribed to a new Infirmary.

Science was still in its infancy, but voyages of exploration now sought out new and useful plants and James Hutton published his landmark work on geology in 1785. The first tentative explorations of the atmosphere had consisted of carrying barometers up mountains and, more recently, flying kites into thunderstorms (with sometimes fatal results). The science of gasses was making progress alongside the development of the steam-engine, and specifically the properties of oxygen, had been discovered as early as 1774 by Joseph Priestley, who noted its lightness and explosive qualities when heated in the presence of fuel. The Peace of Paris had recently brought a series of wars involving a newly independent America, Britain, France, Spain and the Dutch Republic to an end and led to a few years of relative peace in western Europe. The young Napoleon was just about to graduate and the first bales of cotton were ariving in Britain from the Americas.

1783 saw the beginnings of what would become a "balloon craze", when Sir Joseph Banks naturalist, botanist, and patron of the natural sciences began to recieve reports from France about ballloon flights. One of his correspondents was the American ambassador to France, and fellow scientist (in those days, "natural philosopher") Benjamin Franklin, who descibed how the Montgolfier brothers has demonstrated balloons. Early British balloonist soon followed. Thomas Baldwin of Chester was not the first British balloonist but his flight is notable in many ways.

Thomas Balwin's early interest in balloons is evident from his letter to a potential supporter from December 1784. He was trying to raise money for the construction of a balloon and wrote to his friend, the antiquarian and travel writer Thomas Pennant:

  • "I am still prosecuting the subject with the greatest ardor and with the probability of its taking place"

Subscriptions were opened by Baldwin at the Whitefriars bank of Robert Hesketh in Chester (still called "Bank House") as well as in other cites, including London. He would not be able to raise the money to construct and fly his owned manned balloon, but was helped by a stoke of luck. In September 1785, when Italian aeronaut Vincent Lunardi brought his "Flying Circus" to Chester, he took rooms at the "White Lion" in Northgate Street. He allowed Thomas Baldwin to hire his balloon and make a solo ascent. Baldwin made quite detailed scientific observations, but is probably best known (if at all) for his aerial view of Chester - the first ever image of the earth taken from above.

Just a few days after Baldwin's flight "The Times" of 15 September 1785 declared "the rage for ballooning" to be "the folly of the age" and urged that "some restriction should be laid on the madness of their frequent trips into the air, without one single good purpose being produced". It is unclear what provoked this response, other than possibly that it was one year exactly after Lunardi's first flight in England. The last fatal accident had been on 15th June 1785, and had also been the first, when Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier crashed during attempt to cross the English Channel in an experimental de-Roziere hybrid hydrogen-hot-air balloon - it is believed that the heat source for the hot-air part of the ballloon ignited the hydrogen. There had been a few "frivilous" flights and also some scientific ones, but why The Times should so suddenly turn against balloons just after Baldwin's flight is something of a mystery - perhaps it was just provocative journalism. It may however have influenced Balwin to simply write his book and give up on further balloon experiments.

Bread and Circuses

"Spectacular's" such as Baldwin's flight were among many of the peculiar entertainments of the Georgians. The Chester Courant of the 14th October 1791 advertised the arrival of a travelling menagerie in Chester:

Baldwin's landing at Belleair Farm. While waiting for his friends to arrive and recover the balloon he gave "rides" to local children.
  • "Just arrived from the Lyceum, and Exeter Exchange, Strand, London, and to be seen during the fair, in the market-place, two of the grandest assemblages of living rarities in all Europe: consisting of two stupendous and royal OSTRICHES, male and female. These birds exceed in magnitude and texture of plumage all the feathered TRIBE in the CREATION. They already measure upwards of NINE FEET high, although very young! – Also a BENGAL TYGER, a young LIONESS, a real spotted HYÆNA, a ravenous WOLF, two ring-tailed PORCUPINES; an AFRICAN RAM, with four circular horns; and twenty other animals and birds, too numerous to insert. – Admittance, 1s. – Servants, half-price. – Likewise in the other exhibition is the ROYAL HEIFER with TWO HEADS, a beautiful COLT, of the race kind, foaled with only THREE LEGS, got by Sir Charles Bunbury’s Diomed, out of Barcelli, which was the dam of Marcia, now the property of Lord Derby; also a RAM with SIX LEGS. – In addition to the animal curiosities one of the most extraordinary productions of the human species will be shewn, namely the double-jointed IRISH DWARF, who will engage to carry two of the largest men now existing, both at the same time. – Admittance, as above. – Birds and beasts bought, sold, or exchanged, by G. Pidcock. – The above collection will proceed to Warrington, Liverpool, Manchester, &c."

One of the strangest was the "learned pig" said to be "a native of Ireland" and "educated in Chester". The pig visited Chester in 1792 and the Chester Courant reported:

  • "Nicholson’s learned pig has, we hear, lately arrived from Oxford, where he was admitted a fellow of Brazen-Nose* college, and is now returned to his seat at Bunbury, in this county, with those two profound marks of erudition A.M. annexed to his name – the learned in that neighbourhood say "it would do your heart good to hear him grunt Greek".

These public entertainments had been ongoing in Chester for some time. Booth Mansion on Watergate Street was the home to the assembly rooms and the facilities were described as follows:

  • Booth Mansion north of Watergate Street also accommodated assembly rooms, which as 'Mr. Eaton's Great Room' gave space in the 1750s for such diversions as "rope dancing, fire eating, and a learned dog". It closed in 1758.
Georgian entertainments included the "Learned Pig".

"Bread and Circuses" was a phrase attributed to the Roman writer Juvenal to illustrate how the masses might be placated by supplying basic needs and providing entertainment. In the 1780's the weather was one factor which kick off a shortage of both. There seems to have been a volcanic element to events. Laki, in Iceland erupted violently over an eight-month period between June 1783 and February 1784 and together with the adjoining volcano Grímsvötn, poured out an estimated 42 billion tons or 14 km3 (3.4 cu mi) of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide compounds. These contaminated the soil, leading to the death of over 50% of Iceland's livestock population, and the destruction of the vast majority of all crops. This led to a famine which then killed approximately 25% of the island's human population. The Laki eruption and its aftermath caused a drop in global temperatures and caused crop failures in Europe. The fog was so thick that boats stayed in port, unable to navigate, and the sun was described as "blood coloured". In France, these events contributed significantly to an increase in poverty and famine. The effects were also felt locally: in 1788, after one of the worst winters of the 18th Century the rising price of wheat sparked growing unrest in Flintsshire and Denbighshire. After the fall of the Bastille the people of Wrexham took to the streets in trouble which did not die down until the end of autumn 1789. In addition to volcanic eruptions, one of the most severe El Niño events in history occurred from 1788 to 1794. Winters were longer than normal, springs were wetter than normal and summers were drier and hotter than normal, all conditions that contributed to poor crop yields.

The sharp increase in bread prices in France was one cause of the French Revolution in 1789. The revolution led on to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Napoleonic Wars. During the wars prices for farm products were high, and both landlords and tenants enjoyed a period of prosperity which presumably increased their consumption of the goods and services provided by Chester. The wartime conditions enabled land-owners to lay claim to "common" land which they began to fence-in during the spring of 1793. In contrast the labourers suffered, and the inclosure of commons and waste in Cheshire may have pushed significant numbers from the land with little option but to migrate to the towns, Chester included. In North Wales there were gatherings of "troublemakers" and the Riot Act was read.

Thomas Harrison's portrait, 1820 by Henry Wyatt from the Grosvenor Museum.

Rebuilding Chester Castle

The relationship of Chester Castle to the city has always been perculiar. Under the Great Charter of Henry VII the castle belonged to the County of Cheshire, and was entirely surrounded by the County of Chester - the city being a separate "county". As it was the administrative center of the county the castle would eventually contain the County Courts and the county jail, and later the county council offices. In front of Chester Castle's outer gatehouse, there was an irregular open area known by the 13th century as Gloueriston (Gloverstone). Like the castle itself, this lay outside of the city liberties, being a part of the Hundred of Broxton. This peculiarity led to the odd situation that the inhabitants of Chester were responsible for the execution of criminals found guilty by the courts of another county. This caused a considerable amount of debate in Georgian times, as recorded by Hemingway. Beacause the Gloverstone area was outside of the City jurisdiction it was outside of the guild's restrictive trade practices. In the late 17th and through the 18th Century it became a center for Clockmakers.

In 1785, it was decided to hold a competition to rebuild Chester Gaol. The prize was 50 guineas and the winning design was submitted by Thomas Harrison, then relatively unknown. Harrison spent the whole of his career in the northwest of England and, other than his houses in Scotland and his work in Oxford, his works were confined to Lancashire, Cheshire, Shropshire, Cumbria, Derbyshire, and North Wales. He was never a member of the Royal Academy or any other London-based institution, and only a rare visitor to London once his practice was established. Nevertheless, Charles Cockerell (later to become the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects) said of him in 1828 that he was "undoubtedly the noblest genius in architecture we have had". Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described him "as a local architect whose work is as good at that of any architect in London". The new gaol was commissioned by the Justices of the Peace for the County of Cheshire; the building committee, formed in September 1786, included Sir Henry Mainwaring Bt, George Leycester, John Leigh of Oughtrington, and John Legh of Adlington.

The leading architect to specialise in prison design at the time was William Blackburn (1750-1790), who was responsible for eighteen prisons, including Oxford, Liverpool and Gloucester. The latter, which owed much to the ideas of its Governor, Sir George Paul, appears to have been influential on Harrison, since, in 1784, Blackburn was paid to review the early plans for Chester, and in 1793 copies of a pamphlet published by Paul "containing many useful hints as to the care and regulation of gaols.." were requested from Gloucester. "The Builder" (vol. 21, p. 204) records a visitor to Chester, a M. Dupin, as commenting:

  • "The Sessions House and Panoptic prison of Chester are united in the same building which is assuredly the handsomest of its kind that is to be seen in Europe. The interior arrangements are well contrived and bespeak much regard for humanity. The architecture is equally simple and majestic."

The new prison was praised as one of the best-constructed prisons in the country. It had such endearing features as a raised exercise yard with a delightful view of distant Beeston Castle. The two courtyards at the right and left of the building were originally exercise yards for the male and female debtors respectively. The semi-octagonal felons jail originally radiated from below the central bay with the Governor's house in the right hand wing. The jail was thus the first in England to have been built on the overview principle advocated by John Howard in his State of the Prisons of 1780 and later by Jeremy Bentham in his publication "Panopticon" of 1791. However, it was a project that was to take 37 years, was plagued by financial problems, needed two separate Acts of Parliament and was slowed down by poor workmanship (much of the work being undertaken by a badly housed and often-undernourished population of convicts). While Harrison submitted the winning plans, and fleshed them out in 1792/3 he did little else until 1794 when it was discovered that William Bell, the superintendent of works since 1788, had wasted stone and embezzled funds and materials. Bell was dismissed, and Harrison, who seems to have been responsible for his exposure, replaced him as surveyor. Examination of the work supervised by Bell revealed that the pillars in the prison chapel would not support the planned superstructure and there were additional delays while the foundations were relaid. A new contractor, William Cole the elder, was only appointed in 1797. The main block seems to have been completed shortly after, for in 1800 the finishing touches were put to the portico and prison chapel.

A panorama of Harrison's. modification of the Outer Bailey of Chester Castle. The Agricola Tower can be seen behind the buildings on the right but the gate leading to it is now kept locked. The Military Museum is in the building to the left. The neo-classical design is remarkably similar to that of Downing College in Cambridge by the architect William Wilkins (which was only completed in 1951). Wilkins career in architecture began in 1804 with his Greek-revival designs for the newly established Downing College. Wilkins' commission came after earlier plans in a Palladian style by James Wyatt had been rejected as "insufficiently classical". Wilkins arranged the college buildings around a single large courtyard. Construction of Downing began in 1807 (Harrison's design is earlier) and proceeded slowly, coming to a halt (due to litigation over the founders bequest) in 1821 with Wilkins' scheme still incomplete. Whether Wilkins was influenced by Harrison is impossible to say.

Despite the fact that the Victorians would consider the Georgians to be a amoral lot, there was a 19th Century society dedicated to promoting public morality. It was established in 1802, based on a proclamation by George III in 1787, and as a successor to the 18th-century Society for the Reformation of Manners, and continued to function until 1885. Members of the Clapham Sect, of which William Wilberforce was one, were involved in the society. The proclamation commanded the prosecution of those guilty of "excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord's Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices". The "Society for the Suppression of Vice" was instituted in 1802 to "check the spread of open vice and immorality, and more especially to preserve the minds of the young from contamination by exposure to the corrupting influence of impure and licentious books, prints, and other publications". Eventually associated with the Clapham Sect was Beilby Porteus, Bishop of Chester from 1776 to 1787. Porteus took a particular interest in the affairs of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, especially regarding the Church of England's role in the administration of the Codrington Plantations in Barbados, where around 300 slaves were owned by the Society. His sermons were among the first challenges in a 26-year campaign to eradicate slavery in the British West Indian colonies.

Trouble in France

Historians generally view the underlying causes of the French Revolution as the result of the Ancien Régime's failure to manage social and economic inequality. Rapid population growth and the inability to adequately finance government debt resulted in economic depression, unemployment and high food prices. From the late 17th century on, political and cultural debate became part of wider European society, rather than being confined to a small "elite" who if needs be could be repressed. Improvements in education and literacy over the course of the 18th century meant larger audiences for newspapers and journals, with Masonic lodges, coffee houses and reading clubs providing areas where people could debate and discuss ideas, as well as engage in business.

1-2 Northgate Street in 2014. The "Classical" building is the Commercial News Rooms (1807), while the arched ground-level arcade dates from the 1960's. The "Tudor" building next to it dates from 1898-99.

A good example of these shifts in culture can be found in Northgate Street as the Commercial News Rooms. This is an impressive Neo-Classical building (built 1807) designed by Thomas Harrison. On the front facing Northgate Street the lower storey consists of a rusticated three-bay arcade, set behind which are modern shop fronts. The walkway in front of the shop-fronts is not an original feature but was inserted somewhat crudely in the 1960's. In the upper storey are four Ionic pilasters dividing it into three bays, each of which contains a 24-pane sash window. An investment based economy existed at the time, but world events could change prices rapidly. In 1806 the stunning victory at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt by Napoleon's army over the Prussian army (less than three weeks after mobilizing) kept the Prussians off the battlefield in Europe for seven years until 1813 and gave Napoleon control of Europe, except for Britain and Russia. With its well-informed and wealthy membership, and a conveniently placed bank on the ground floor, the Commercial New Rooms would have been the sort of place where business was done and considerable sums of money changed hands.

Fear of invasion returned during the Napleonic Wars and a confused and confusing mix of militia, Gentlemen & Yeomanry Cavalry and Volunteer Infantry came into existence. The Chester Volunteers (Col Roger Barnston), for example, were a regiment of 13 or 14 companies, including a grenadier, light and artillery company for which colours were presented on 19 March 1804. They were a fairly primitive armed force: in September 1803 Colonel Barnston requested the Lord Lieutenant to apply for 600 stand of arms for half the regiment, the remainder being unarmed, and 100 pikes for the artillery company.

Chester's marked growth between 1811 and 1821 thus probably reflected on the one hand increased prosperity in the service sector brought about by sharply rising purchasing power in the rural hinterland, and, on the other, migration to the city brought about by distress among the rural poor. Some probably found jobs in the growing service sector, and some at the expanding leadworks. After the wars ended, however, agriculture nationally fell into depression, and although Cheshire farming was not hit as severely as elsewhere (thanks to rapid urbanization across the North-West), the price of wool, cattle, and horses dropped heavily at the fair of 1816 and local land rents fell sharply.


One often missed relic of Georgian Chester is the grave of Thomas Gould. When Thomas Gould was with the 52nd at Waterloo then he was present at a key moment in history. The final action of the day saw Sir John Colborne wheel about the 52nd Light Infantry to outflank the never-defeated Old Guard of the French Imperial Guard as they advanced towards the British center to defeat Wellington's almost shattered and exhausted forces. As the French column passed his brigade, the 52nd charged, fired a devastating volley into the left flank of the Chasseurs and then attacked with the bayonet. William Hay, a Light Dragoon watching from the right, later recalled that "so well-directed a fire was poured in, that down the bank the Frenchmen fell and, I may say, the battle of Waterloo was gained". The whole of the French Guard was driven back down the hill and began a general retreat. An earthquake of panic passed through the French lines as the astounding news spread - "La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!" ("The Guard retreats [recoils]. [let him] save [himself] who can!").

The gravestone of Thomas Gould, who fought his way through the Peninsular War with Wellington, was there at Waterloo at a critical moment and was buried in 1865 just outside of Chester Castle - his grave now sits in the middle of a traffic roundabout

Seeing the 52nd begin an advance, Wellington reputedly ordered "Go on, Colborne, they won't stand!"; the battalion then advanced diagonally across the field. Wellington, seizing the moment, stood in Copenhagen's stirrups, and (as a ray of sunlight supposedly fell upon him) waved his hat in the air to signal a general advance - his army rushed forward from their battered lines and threw themselves upon the retreating French - retreat became rout, and Napoleon's last hopes of a return from exile were extinguished. Tom Gould, common soldier from Chester was there. His grave marker is shaped as a casket and inscribed:


The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 worsened the economy and saw the return of job-seeking veterans. There were further riots in North Wales. At that time only around 11% of adult males had the vote, very few of them in the industrial north, which was worst hit. The Corn Laws of 1815 onward were intended to protect British agricultural landowners from cheap foreign imports following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but their effect was to increase grain prices and decrease supplies, causing hardship among the poor. Worse was to come as a consequence of the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in April in the Dutch East Indies (known today as Indonesia). This eruption was the largest in at least 1,300 years (after the hypothesized eruption causing the extreme weather events of 535–536), and perhaps exacerbated by the 1814 eruption of Mayon in the Philippines.

In 1816 (the "Year without a summer") severe weather resulted in poor harvests, leading to further food shortages during the winter of 1816–1817. Reformers identified parliamentary reform as the solution and a mass campaign to petition parliament for manhood suffrage gained three-quarters of a million signatures in 1817 but was flatly rejected by the House of Commons.

The Cat Hoax

In 1815 a cat hoax supposedly rocked Chester. According to the press reports at the time someone plastered the city with handbills offering to buy cats (‘Hoax at Chester’,Chester Chronicle, 1 Sept. 1815, p. 3). These informined the local citizenry that the Island of St Helena was infested with rats. This was a problem; it had recently been decreed that the captured Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, would be exiled to the small island. As such, cats, primarily skilled ratters, were required for migration to the island to make it habitable. The people of Chester were offered:

  • "sixteen shillings for every athletic full-growntom cat, ten shillings for every adult female puss, and a half-crownfor every thriving kitten that could swill milk, pursue a ball of thread,or fasten its young fangs in a dying mouse".

The press is said to have reported that hundreds of cats were rounded up and delivered, yet there was no buyer to be found. It was said that in the resulting chaos, people were injured, and hundreds of cats were drowned in the River Dee. This story was widely reported at the time up and down Britain. Soon enough it was also told in newspapers and compendia of trivia across the anglosphere. Yet, the Great Chester Cat Hoax never happened; it was a journalistic invention which rapidly transformed into a widely believed urban legend, despite the Chronicle publishing a rebuttal, trying to place the blame on an Irish newspaper, and presumably make capital out of the anti-Irish sentiments of the times:

  • "This may be rather classed as a Limerick than a Chester hoax: We aresurprised that Mr. Flint, the editor of the Limerick paper, from which wehave copied the following would allow any quizzing spark to impose uponhim with so improbable a story. He gives it, however, as an actual fact, anddetails it with much confidence."

This did not, however, prevent copycat hoaxes from materialising as pranksters imitated the story, first in the British Isles and then later in North America.

Wellington's Visit

In December 1817 the Duke of Wellington visited Chester. The event is recorded by a Blue Plaque in Love Street:

  • "Roger Barnston (Born 1739. Died here 1837) High Sheriff of Cheshire 1800 and DL of County. Re-formed Cheshire Militia on Roodeye in 1803. Entertained Duke of Wellington here in 1817."
Forest House in 2018, with entrance onto Love Street.

The building on which the plaque is located, once Forest House, was built as a town house for the Barnston family of Crewe Hill, south-east of Farndon (see River Dee for more detail on Crewe Hill). The date of its construction in uncertain; one source states 1759, others say in the 1780s. It was at one time "possibly the finest Georgian house in Chester", and a prominent landmark in the city. Wellington's visit created a certain ammount of turmoil. It would have been custom at the time for him to be offered the freedom of the city. However this was not done as the Grosvenors were his political adversaries.

The Chester Gaslight Company was formed in 1817 by Deed of Settlement and remained a non-statutory company. Its works were in Cuppin Street and were built by the famous gas engineer Samuel Clegg. Gasworks were noted for their foul smell and generally located in the poorest metropolitan areas.The process used was the carbonization and partial pyrolysis of coal. The off gases liberated in the high-temperature carbonization (coking) of coal in coke ovens were collected, washed and used as fuel. The main use of the gas was street-lighting. The streets around Cuppin Street were first lit in 1818.

When a second economic slump occurred in early 1819, radical reformers sought to mobilise huge crowds to force the government to back down. The movement was particularly strong in the north-west of England, where the Manchester Patriotic Union organised a mass rally in August 1819, addressed by well-known radical orator Henry Hunt. The result was to be the Peterloo Massacre. The troops in the massacre included 600 men of the 15th Hussars; several hundred infantrymen; a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder (2.7 kg) guns; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry, 400 special constables and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, relatively inexperienced militia recruited from among shopkeepers and tradesmen. There is much correspondence in the latter half of 1819 concerning the security of Chester Castle. Plans were drawn-up in February 1820 to build a guard house in the centre of the Inner Bailey at a cost of £418, and further plans were drawn-up to build a new battery to protect the entrance to the Inner Bailey. This latter plan is annotated with a reference to Thomas Harrison, evidencing his continued involvement with works at the Castle. None of these plans came to anything.


The Cathedral west front in 1815. Note the bushes growing out of the stonework, which was badly decayed at the time.

The Cathedral was badly decayed by the mid to late Georgian era. It's income had been stagnant since the times of Queen Elizabeth and parts of it were seriously in need of repair. The clergy were indifferent, many of the appointees rented-out their accomodation and stayed at inns when they occasionally visited Chester. Bishop Francis Gastrell (1714-25) lived at Oxford during his whole occupation of the see. However he is noted for the fine-grained survey he made of every parish, published in the nineteenth century as Notitia Cestriensis. The work comprises, for each parish or chapelry, notes on value of the living, patronage, sources of revenue, population, recusancy, schools and charities etc. Along with it was published the so-called Gastrell Manuscript, or "Chronicle of Abbey of St. Werburg".

In 1818 Thomas Harrison was asked to survey the Cathedral and estimated that repairs would cost £7000. Money was raised by a public appeal and Harrison carried out some repair work, particularly to the south face of the south transept, where he replaced the elaborately carved 14th Century gable with a much more simple facade. He then fell out with the Cathedral and resigned from the project. Harrison wrote a furious letter to the Dean (Robert Hodgson or his successor Peter Vaughan):

  • "..presumed the Dean... wished to have a man of some experience to advise with, and superintend, the necessary works of this decayed building..You cannot imagine that I, or any other person, would willingly lend his name as architect to the repairs required in this almost ruinous church... without having the superindendence of such repairs. Would the public be as ready to free me from the responsibility of any failure as the Chapter express themselves to be? I doubt it much"

The work was done without his further assistance to a low standard and he was not even paid for his plans until after his death (in 1829). It would have to wait until Victorian Chester for a more complete restoration.

George IV (29 January 1820 — 26 June 1830)

George IV led an extravagant lifestyle that contributed to the fashions of the Regency era. He was a patron of new forms of leisure, style and taste. By the time of his accession, he was obese and possibly addicted to laudanum. The Times wrote that he would always prefer "a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon". It was probably George IV that gave rise to a significant part of the negative perception that the Victorians had of the Georgian period.

This 1825 map of Chester shows how little development had occurred both within and outside of the City Walls by the end of the Georgian period. Closer examination reveals a network of narrow courts behind the main streets. Click on the map (twice) for a "zoomable" image

The country was still in a disturbed state. For a few months following Peterloo it seemed to the authorities that the country was heading towards an armed rebellion. Encouraging them in that belief were two abortive uprisings, in Huddersfield and Burnley, the Yorkshire West Riding Revolt, during the autumn of 1820, and the discovery and foiling of the Cato Street conspiracy to blow up the cabinet that winter. By the end of the year, the government had introduced legislation, later known as the Six Acts, to suppress radical meetings and publications, and by the end of 1820 every significant working-class radical reformer was in jail. Thomas Grosvenor had a narrow escape when an angry mob overturned his carriage into the River Dee during the trial of those involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy, and following his pronouncements against the "diabolical" Cato Street conspirators. The Cato Street conspiritors were less lucky. On 1 May 1820 five were hanged and after the bodies had hung for half an hour, they were lowered one at a time and an unidentified individual in a black mask decapitated them against an angled block with a small knife (an axe made specially was not used}. Each beheading was accompanied by shouts, booing and hissing from the crowd and each head was displayed to the assembled spectators, declaring it to be the head of a traitor, before placing it in the coffin with the remainder of the body. It could have been worse - the original sentence was to be "hanged, drawn and quartered" but this was commuted.

Elections in Chester were still riotous affairs. Hemingway, writing in 1826, reported:

  • "Of all the places in the kingdom which have heen contested during the late general Election, the city of Chestet has heen distinguished ahove most others for the virulence of party feeling, the acrimony of personal hostility, and the violence of popular outrage."

The system had become a grave scandal, and each recurring election day was a "demoralising orgie".

Grosvenor Bridge

The Grosvenor Bridge was built between 1827-1833 in order to ease congestion on the Old Dee Bridge at Handbridge, which by the beginning of the 19th century was the only crossing across the River Dee in Chester. The bridge was a long time coming, as in 1808, Chester Corporation decided to hold a competition to select the best plans for a new bridge across the Dee. A committee was empowered to consider plans, surveys and estimates. Nothing much happened for ten years. However, a serious blow for the viability of the Port of Chester was the building of what is now the A5 by noted engineer Thomas Telford from Shrewsbury up to Holyhead. The committee "woke up" in 1815 when Telford was appointed to the new road project and it was seen as a threat to Chester's Irish trade. On September 2nd 1818 the Grand Jury, meeting in its room at Chester Castle passed the following resolution:

The Grosvenor Bridge looking down a still River Dee.
  • "We, the Grand Jury of the County of Chester, having considered the state of the present bridge over the Dee at Chester and the avenues thereto, cannot but approve of the erection of a new bridge as a measure highly beneficial to the public at large and as a National undertaking most important to the intercourse between England, Wales and Ireland. But as it is within the jurisdiction of the City of Chester we do not conceive it to be within our province to interfere in any manner with the building of the same."

The Jury would have been aware that the "Exchequer Bill Loans Commision", which had been set up to finace public works such as roads, harbours and bridges, had now been in operation for over a year and Chester had still hesitated to take advantage of this source of funding.

Following a public meeting at the Chester Town Hall (in those days the "Exchange") on 28th Deptember 1818 a resolution was passed that:

  • "... the existing mediaeval bridge [at Handbridge] and the avenues thereto, which are the principal communication between the great manufacturing counties of Lancaster and York and the whole of the North of England, with the West of England, and with Wales and Ireland, are not only highly inconvenient but absolutely dangerous to passengers in carriages, on horseback and on foot."

A "Dee Bridge Committee" was appointed to:

  • "..receive and consider plans, surveys and estimates, and the most expedientmode of providing funds for carrying out these resolutions into effect"

At its first meeting, held on 3 October 1818, the Dee Bridge Committee appointed the somewhat aged architect Thomas Harrison (then in his mid 70's) to supply plans for a new bridge. Within a remarkably short peiod of ten days Harrison provided a design for an iron bridge costed at £17,740. This appears to be very little time in which to calculate loads, materials and expenses for what was a very new material and one which Harrison seems never to have worked with before. Nothing much then happened until 1824, when Telford had his bridge over the Menai Straights well underway. Once again, it was realised that without an adequate crossing at Chester there was a serious threat to local trade, especially the trade with Ireland. Then there was further delay as a plan to give the task of designing and constructing the bridge to Marc Brunel was explored. If this had gone ahead the elder Brunel may well have given the task to his son, Isembard. Eventually Harrison was given the job. Harrison did not live to see his bridge completed. In fact he resigned as bridge designer on the 8th January 1826 well before the foundation stone was laid. At its opening, the Grosvenor Bridge was the longest existing single-span stone arch road bridge – at 200 feet across and 60 feet high – in the world. The Grosvenor Bridge held the world record for thirty years when it was surpassed by the "Cabin John Bridge" in the USA, 220 feet across and 57 feet 3 inches high. The Grosvenor Bridge is still the longest masonry arch in the UK.

Chester's Georgian "Lunatic Asylum". Although attitudes towads mental illness were changing, terms like "Lunatic" were still in use.


The late Georgian period saw improvements in the provision of treatment for mental health conditions. "Asylums" originally had a broad scope as their mission was to house and confine the mentally ill, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, and sometimes the criminal. Early confinement laws focused on protecting the public from the mentally ill, governments became responsible for housing and feeding undesirables in exchange for their personal liberty. In England, humanitarian reforms rose from religious concerns. William Tuke (1732–1822) urged the Yorkshire Society of (Quaker) Friends to establish the York "Retreat" in 1796, where patients were guests, not prisoners, and where the standard of care depended on dignity and courtesy as well as the therapeutic and moral value of physical work.

The "Cheshire Lunatic Asylum" opened for the receipt of its first patients in August 1829, work having commenced in March 1827, under the auspices of the 1808 County Asylum Act which allowed for Justices of the Peace to levy a county rate in order to establish asylums to accommodate "pauper lunatics". Previously these people had been confined in Workhouses and Prisons. The plans by William Cole, County Architect, were chosen by and erected under the directions of the visiting Justices (John Feilden of Mollington, Richard Congreave of Mollington, and Townsend Ince of Christleton). "The Deva" was built by William Quay of Neston: the "1829 Building" is of brick with dressings of stone. Its design is reputedly inspired by "The Retreat" at York (dating from 1796).


The Victorians probably believed that prostitution in Georgian times was a significant industry. There were indeed many publications giving detailed lists of the ladies available. "Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies": or, "Man of pleasure's kalender", provided an annual directory of prostitutes working in London. Noted balloonist and writer of much of the Encyclopedia Britannica James Tytler (1745 – 1804) wrote a similar "guidebook" under the pseudonym "Ranger". Tytler published "Ranger's Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, a private book detailing 66 working ladies in the city (with fold-out map)".

Little is known about prostitution in Georgian Chester, and even Hemingway shrinks from mentioning it. Haygarth (1775) records a remarkably high prevalence of syphilis in the city as compared with a 25x lower rate in the surrounding countryside (London had twice the rate in Chester), but that can only be taken as an indication. The September 1820 edition of "Saunder's Newsletter" records a duel over the favours of what may have been a sex-worker (she is described as "a Cyprian" - a euphemism at the time for a high-class lady whose company was for sale). The story is found in several other sources including the "Annual Register" for 1820, which places the duel "on the esplanade, fronting the new burial ground".

The fight arose out of the "supposed claims to a fair Cyprian" and the newsletter states:

  • "Mr. Folliott, a gentleman well known in Chester for his amiability of disposition, on Monday morning received a challenge from Mr. S. Burrowes, a person connected with the law."

The two had fallen out over the favours of the lady in question and Folliott and Burrowes met along with their respective seconds, Mr. W. Pemberton and Mr. E. Hall, and (just in case he was needed) a mutually agreed medical man named Panton. They drew lots to see who would have the privilege of firing first - Burrowes won. The distance was set at twelve paces. Saunders’s Newsletter reports:

  • "Shots were exchanged without effect; the pistols were a second time loaded and both fired together with the like result. An ineffectual attempt was made by Mr. Pemberton to reconcile the parties, and the fatal weapons were again discharged, which unhappily were too certain in their aim. A ball pierced the head of Mr. Folliott, and considerably fractured his skull; Mr. Burrowes was killed upon the spot."

Folliot (probably of Northgate Street) was operated upon and apparently survived although the newsletter reported "the mental consequence may be serious". The "Annual Register" also points out that:

  • "Mr F. is a gentlemen of a large fortune, and made himself commendably conspicuous in founding the Chester Lunatic Asylum"

Just what "Asylum" is being referred to is unclear, given the County Asylum was not founded until a few years later. The story was even reported in "Galignani's Messenger" (an Italian newspaper) as front-page news.

Prostitution was not a bar to social progress, although sometimes it did not last. Neston, Chester's sometime port, was the birthplace of one of Nelson's mistress, Emma Hamilton, who was born (1765) to a humble family in Neston before "working her way into polite society". Born Emy Lyon in Ness near Neston, the daughter of a coal-mine blacksmith, Henry Lyon, who died when she was two months old, she was brought up by her mother, formerly Mary Kidd, at Hawarden, with no formal education. She later changed her name to Emma Hart. Progressing through working Drury Lane as a prostitute, she gained employ in a local tavern/brothel and became an early strip-tease artiste. Emma next worked as an artists model (several works featuring her survive) and as a "dancer" at the "Goddess of Health" (also known as the "Temple of Health") for James Graham, a Scottish "quack" doctor. The establishment's greatest attraction was the latest Georgian technology: a bed through which electricity was passed, giving paying patrons mild shocks and presumably making sex more "interesting". She was still only fifteen. Passed on as mistress to various men, she was eventually (1786) packed off to Naples in return for settling debts between Charles Francis Greville and his uncle Sir William Hamilton, an antiquarian, archaeologist and vulcanologist and also British envoy to Naples. They married in 1791: he was 60; she was 26. As wife of the British Envoy, Emma first met Nelson in 1793 but their famous affair did not begin until he returned to Naples five years later, a living legend, after his victory at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir. Not yet 40, Nelson's adventures had prematurely aged him: he had lost an arm, most of his teeth, and was afflicted by coughing spells. Emma, now in her early thirties nursed him at her aged husband's country villa and the affair started. Nelson was mortally wounded during the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and brought back to England, pickled in brandy (or rum - still known as "Nelson's Blood" in the navy). Emma turned to drink and died (1815) in poverty, of amoebic dysentery.


Support for parliamentary reform had plummeted after the launch of the French Revolution in 1789. Many English politicians became steadfastly opposed to any major political change. Various attempts at reform failed but support for reform came from an unexpected source—a reactionary faction of the Tory Party—in 1829. The Tory government under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, responding to the danger of civil strife in largely Roman Catholic Ireland, drew up the Catholic Relief Act 1829. Its passage followed a vigorous campaign that threatened insurrection led by Irish lawyer Daniel O'Connell. This legislation repealed various laws that imposed political disabilities on Roman Catholics, in particular laws that prevented them from becoming members of Parliament. In response, disenchanted ultra-Tories who perceived a danger to the established religion came to favour parliamentary reform, in particular the enfranchisement of Manchester, Leeds, and other heavily Nonconformist cities in northern England. The ultras believed that a widely based electorate could be relied upon to rally around anti-Catholicism. Wellington’s speech in favour of Catholic emancipation particularly outraged the Earl of Winchelsea who accused the Duke of introducing Popery into the government. The Duke challenged Winchelsea to a duel which took place on Battersea fields on 21 March 1829. Winchelsea fired into the air; the Duke missed, but whether on purpose or because he was a particularly bad shot, nobody really knows.

The Duke of Wellington himself remained resolutely opposed to parliamentary reform, and as a result lost a vote of no confidence on 15 November 1830. The Whigs under Lord Grey (the Tea is named after him) then formed the government. The political and popular pressure for reform had grown so great that pro-reform Whigs won an overwhelming House of Commons majority in the general election of May 1831. The Whig party won almost all constituencies with genuine electorates, leaving the Tories with little more than the rotten boroughs. The House of Lords rejected reform and because parliamentary rules prohibited the introduction of the same bill twice during the same session, the ministry advised the new king, William IV, to prorogue Parliament. As soon as the new session began in December 1831, the Third Reform Bill was brought forward. Political chaos followed.

William IV (26 June 1830 — 20 June 1837)

As a result of the deaths and childlessness of his two older brothers, he inherited the throne when he was sixty-four years old. His reign saw several reforms: the poor law was updated, child labour restricted and slavery abolished throughout the British Empire. Though William did not engage in politics as much as his brother or his father, he was the most recent monarch to appoint a Prime Minister contrary to the will of Parliament.

The electoral reform was in part necessary because some electorates had grown enormously during the Industrial Revolution: for example, before 1832 the town of Manchester, which expanded rapidly during the Industrial Revolution from a small settlement into a large city, was merely part of the larger county constituency of Lancashire and did not elect its own MPs. By the time of the 1831 general election, out of 406 elected members of Partliament, 152 were chosen by fewer than 100 voters each, and 88 by fewer than fifty voters. The need for political reform now led to widespread riots in England.

One of the most important pieces of legislation was the Reform Act 1832, which refashioned the British electoral system. It abolished tiny districts, gave representation to cities, gave the vote to small landowners, tenant farmers, shopkeepers, householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers. Only qualifying men were able to vote; the Act introduced the first explicit statutory bar to women voting, by defining a voter as a male person. The Act increased the national electorate from about 400,000 to 650,000, making about one in five adult males eligible to vote (see: 1883 Reform Act for later developments).


Robert Grosvenor caricatured by 'Ape' in Vanity Fair in 1871. He was the last Grosvenor MP of Chester from 1826 until 1847.

1830 saw the end of the century and a half during which the Grosvenors had held a virtual monopoly on the two parliamentary seats for Chester. Thomas Grosvenor and Robert Grosvenor had been elected in 1826. Robert being elected in absentia while he spent much of his time touring Europe. In 1829 earl Grosvenor announced that he would "no longer seek to nominate both of the city's MPs". The enormous expense of conducting elections (mostly buying beer and applying other forms of influence) may not have mattered to a man of his vast and growing wealth - he was the fourth richest man in England even before he began developing the Belgravia estate in London after 1826 - but the violence and acrimony which attended the general elections of 1820 and 1826 were seen as damaging his interests and influence. An Egerton thus sat for the city amicably alongside a Grosvenor in 1830-1. Robert Grosvcenor's re-election in 1830 was however opposed by the Independent party in Chester, who denounced him:

  • "not only as the son of a peer who is a notorious and powerful boroughmonger, but a pensioner upon the public purse, and as a man who has been deficient in the performance of his public duties"

Robert defeated the Independent's absent nominee Foster Cunliffe Offley in the ensuing poll - Offley had been nominated without his consent. Foster Cunliffe Offley was the son of Foster Cunliffe of Saighton (who built the noted "four dogs" gateway) and much of his wealth came from his great-grandfather, another Foster Cunliffe (1682–1758), who made his money by becoming the main slave trader in Liverpool (and mayor there on three occasions).

Grosvenor "inadvertently omitted to take the oaths before taking his seat", and a second by-election was held, 15 Mar. 1831, when his return was not opposed. Chester returned him and the reformer Cunliffe Offley unopposed at the general election of 1831, Egerton having been dropped by the independents due to his lack of support for reform. Offley promised to support the Grey ministry’s reform scheme, and the abolition of both slavery and of the East India Company’s trading monopoly. Finchett Maddock’s candidature for Chester as a Liberal in December 1832, when he campaigned for peace and retrenchment, and against slavery, monopolies and the corn laws, was vigorously opposed. "The wealth and respectability of the city" backed him, but his detractors criticized his humble origins, mediocrity and connections with the Tories and a corrupt corporation, which, coupled with his abstemious refusal to spend on drink and rumours of his late resignation, contributed to his heavy defeat by two other Liberals. The move towards reform also extended to the mayoral elections: the usual succession to the mayoralty was again suspended in 1831, the office being held in turn by two former mayors; the Assembly discontinued official attendance at church on election day and appointed a committee to report on the municipal charities and the state of its finances. In light of the report it declared that there was nothing to hide in the accounts but ordered strict economies in expenditure. In 1833 some 2,400 residents of Chester petitioned parliament for reform of elections to the Assembly, and in 1834 the Assembly declined to join in plans being made by other municipal corporations to resist the intended reform.


Behind the facade of Georgian Chester lurked the fact that Chester had little if anything to sustain its economy in the long-term. The traditional industries of lead, linen and leather were in a terminal decline. Tourism began to appear as a significant factor in the economy and the first guide Books on Chester appeared. Soon there was a growing category of writers on Chester. By the 1830's other traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool. Other communication issues affected Chester. The Menai Straights Bridge opened in 1826. In 1830 the semaphore system between Liverpool and Holyhead through Hilbre Island could carry a message in 23 seconds, allowing Liverpool to dominate shipping on the Irish Sea approaches to the Dee and Mersey.

An engraving of the market square as it would have been in late Georgian Chester. The bricked-up windows may be due to the effect of "Window Tax". The new Northgate (1810) can be seen in the distance. Just visible on the roof of the Exchange is the coupola which was visited by Celia Fiennes in 1698.

The pace of change in Chester now began to pick up. 1835 saw the "Municipal Corporations Act" abolish the admiralty rights of seaport towns - from this time, the Mayor of Chester's title "Admiral of the Dee" is strictly honorary - Chester City Assembly now became the Council of the Borough of Chester. Legal proceedings started over whether the corporation had grossly mismanaged the funds of St John's Hospital: only £85 of the annual income of £600 was applied to the purposes of the hospital. The Mechanics Institute was founded in St John Street. The Chester Criminals Execution Bill was passed after a dispute between the Sherrifs of the city and county as to who should execute criminals. The following year tolls at the city gates were abolished, allowing goods to enter without payment.

In 1837, the union of the thrones of the United Kingdom and Hanover ended. Succession to the Hanoverian throne was regulated by semi-Salic law (agnatic-cognatic), which gave priority to all male lines before female lines, so that it passed not to Queen Victoria but to her uncle, Ernest Augustus, whose son (George V) was to be the last King of Hanover. The crazy party of the Georgian age was over. Victory over Napoleonic France left the British without any serious international rival, other than perhaps Russia in central Asia. Britain's Royal Navy controlled most of the key maritime trade routes and enjoyed unchallenged sea power maintaining the Pax Britannica. Perhaps most importantly in determining the time of the actual end of the Georgian era, there had been a series of voting reforms which shifted power away from the few who controlled many "rotten" boroughs. For whatever reason the political reform in Chester did not do away with every abuse of the system, as even in Victorian Chester the elections were so corrupt that Chester was actually forbidden from having an MP in the Commons from 1881 until 1885.

The Victorians would look back on the Georgian Era as a degenerate culture based on gin and sin. The end of the Georgian era also coincided with the rise of evangelical Christianity, the after-effects of the war with revolutionary France and the growing power of the middle classes. By the 1830s, Britain was far more sober and serious. Lord Palmerston found himself the only politician still wearing rouge in Parliament.

A news story from September 1830 illustrated the way the future was going: the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&M) opened on 15 September 1830. Work on the L&M had begun in the 1820s, to connect the major industrial city of Manchester with the nearest deep water port at the Port of Liverpool, 35 miles (56 km) away. The opening day was a major public event. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, rode on one of the eight inaugural trains, as did many other dignitaries and notable figures of the day. William Huskisson, former cabinet minister and Member of Parliament for Liverpool achieved lasting fame for becoming the worlds first railway accident casualty, being run down by Stephenson's "Rocket", which gave the Liverpool and Manchester Railway huge amounts of publicity, and greatly increased public awareness of the potential of rapid transport. His monument can be seen alongside the railway from Chester to Manchester, a railway which would bring a long delayed wave of change to Chester.

In Summary: Georgian Chester

Whether by luck or its geographical location Chester had always benefited from wealthy external patronage. The Romans were the first major investors, Æthelflæd and Mercians built up the city when much of Mercia was under Viking rule, and the Norman Earls of Chester brought in further wealth. Edward I used it as his base for the invasions of North Wales and Richard II as a base from which he fought with his barons.

Georgian Chester was dominated by the Grosvenors, a wealthy family whose residence was at Chester, but whose wealth was generated elsewhere, at first by lead mines in Wales and later by property development in London. The Assembly continued its efforts to protect local interests, especially those of its largely unelected members. The city saw far less religious strife than it had during the earlier Stuart era and became something of a center for the development of non-conformism. The Cathedral stagnated during the "Age of Reason" and by the end of the period was becoming ruinous. The focus of local conflict shifted to elections, which were little less than alcohol-fueled riots. Science and sensation were combined in Baldwin's balloon ascent, but technological and industrial progress were sparse. The navigation of the River Dee was improved and a Canal and Boatyard built, but there was no establishment of any industry of national importance except the Leadworks, which poured out shot for the Napoleonic Wars. Liverpool came to dominate the maritime trade of the region, initially on the back of the slave-trade and later on cotton and other goods. Social concerns led to infrastructure in the form of an Infirmary, Workhouse and Asylum, as well as further schools for the poor. The medieval gaols were rebuilt and the ancient walls became a promenade which still largely marked the boundaries of the city. Chester Castle took on many non-military roles.

The Georgian terrace in Nicholas Street known as "Pill Box Terrace" - Joseph Turner designed a part of this.

The population of Chester grew from around 8000 in 1725 to around 20,000 in 1830. Some of which were the rural poor forced off lands grabbed during the enclosures of common land. Many of these poor would come to inhabit "slum courts". Along the main streets many of the medieval frontages would be refaced in brick, often with the medieval structure remaining behind. The town-houses of the wealthy featured the new Georgian features of sash windows, symetrical lines and the occasional classical flourish. As the port declined so did Chester as a nexus for Road Transport - Telford's new route to Holyhead made the London-Chester-Holyhead route superfluous, though local traffic from Chester still used it. Mass transport of goods became established in the Georgian period, mostly by water, which was relatively slow - this would be later revolutionised by the railways, but not until the Victorian period.

Chester in the 18th century became an important centre for private schools. There were at least 44 private schools in existence during the 18th century, more after 1750 than before. Private tutors also gave evening lectures on scientific and other subjects and contributed to the varied cultural life of the Georgian town. The Chester Literary and Philosophical Society, established in 1812, had among its two dozen members the chaplain of Little St. John's, the master of a commercial school, shopkeepers, clergymen, a physician, and the publisher of the Chester Chronicle, John Fletcher. It met to discuss papers and hear lectures, and bought scientific apparatus, but seems to have ceased after a year.

For most of the 18th century the most fashionable winter assemblies in Chester as well as the summer balls which were a feature of race week were held at the Exchange. Later in the century the Exchange came to cater mainly for tradespeople, and after c. 1815 subscription assemblies for the gentry were invariably held instead at the Royal Hotel or the Albion Hotel. By the mid 19th century the Exchange had virtually no social function. Booth Mansion in Watergate Street housed a rival assembly room in the 1740s and 1750s, and new rooms were built by public subscription at the Talbot Inn, Eastgate Street, in 1777.

The Georgian era has been seen as the period when Chester was transformed from a town of craft manufactures and artisans into a "leisure town", a "historic regional centre . . . on the way to the pleasant obscurity of county rather than national fame". This is not entirely true as can be seen by a comparison of Chester with Ludlow, where the castle fell into ruin, the river was never navigable and the canals never reached. Chester's social and commercial connections with the broader world in Georgian times may have been insufficient for it to develop into an industrial center, but were enough to maintain a mercantile economy, and there were frequent injections of money generated from outside the city, either through the Grosvenors (including the vast sums spent on electoral bribery), the lead-based income of the Owen Jones charity or users of the retail trades, especially during the races.

No one really knows how close Britain came to open revolt during Georgian times. Much of the discontent centered around electoral procedures. In Chester, elections were quite openly "fixed" and the small industrial base did not provide an impetus for any class-based conflict. Dickens was to sum up the spirit of the age in his Tale of Two Cities:

  • "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.."

Sources and Links

Exploring Georgian Chester

There is no good set route for a perambulation around Chester's Georgian heritage, but there are some places where there is a good selection of Georgian buildings, which mostly survive with least modification particularly as one travells further along the principal streets from the High Cross. Upper Northgate Street has St John's Hospital a good starting point for both social and architectural history. Further Watergate Street near the Watergate itself has a good range and nearby is the "Pillbox Terrace" of Georgian architect Turner and Harrison's [Watergate House] (1820). Lower Bridge Street again has some, well restored, Georgian buildings. Of course, the four main gates of the city were rebuilt in Georgian times. All of the medieval gateways Eastgate (1769), Bridgegate (1781), Watergate (1790) and finally Northgate (1810), were demolished and replaced by ornamental arches.

The biggest "chunk" of Georgian are the courts buildings at Chester Castle and nearby Grosvenor Bridge.

The Regency period at the end of the Georgian age was notable for the rise of the detached and semi-detached villa. In the context of British domestic architecture the term dated from the 1820s when Nash included picturesque villas in his development of Regent’s Park although separate dwellings had been seen in St John’s Wood as early the 1790s. Harrison built one for himself: "St Martin's Villa" was originally constructed around 1820 and is now the pub and restaurant called "The Architect". The exterior of the older part of the building is lined stucco and brown brick with a grey slate hipped roof. There is little ornamentation to spoil the simple elegant lines. Inside, the cellars are part barrel-vaulted in brick, have flagstone floors and stone steps. The entrance lobby has a moulded plaster ceiling, and the open-string stair has 2 quarter-landings, shaped brackets, 2 slender stick balusters per step and swept rail with rose. Reputedly, the arch at the top of the stairs replicated the proportions of the arch of the Grosvenor Bridge.

Other good examples of Georgian buildings can be found in Whitefriars, Abbey Street and Abbey Sqaure.

The Lavaux Map, reproduced below, shows Chester in 1745, near the start of the Georgian period. There is as yet no canal and little development in the former monastic lands bounding the western city wall: i.e. no gaol, Infirmary or linenhall. Chester Castle has not yet been redeveloped.

The Lavaux Map shows Chester in 1745 on the eve of the Jacobite rising. It provides many names of the leading citizens and identifies their homes. The street layout is altered in places but many of these streets still exist today. Lavaux's map also has some interesting quirks: naming the Cathedral as St Werburgh's. Details of many of the buildings indicated can be found elsewhere on this site, usually on the page relating to the relevant street. This was Chester before the redevelopment of the castle and the construction of the canal.

Georgian Architecture

John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) grew up in Chester, where his family had been driven by either the major outbreak of the plague in London in 1665, or the Great Fire of 1666. It is possible that he attended The King's School in Chester, though no records of his being a scholar there survive. The "Sugar House" which was home to his father's business is shown on the Lauvaux Map. Although he lived during the Stuart age he was a symptom, if not a cause, of what was to come, being involved in Whig politics, writing sexually explicit plays, possibly travelling to India and relying on the money of others. As an architect (or surveyor, as the term then was) Vanbrugh is thought to have had no formal training, but was exposed to French architecture during his time in France (mostly while incarcerated as a spy). Vanbrugh instigated European baroque's metamorphosis into a subtle, almost understated version that became known as English baroque and was later simplified into the more "classical" Georgian style. In Chester, this transition is perhaps best appreciated by examination of the frontage of St John's Hospital.

The Abbey Square in 2015. The two Georgian terraces were built by clergymen, often well-to-do in those days, for Cathedral clergy. The square's layout is not in fact a rectangle, as it tapers quite sharply to the south. This lengthens the apparent perspective toward the Cathedral, but shortens it to the north so that the terrace looks closer (the trees on the central lawn tend to conceal the illusion, particularly in summer).

Georgian architecture is characterized by its proportion and balance; simple mathematical ratios were used to determine the height of a window in relation to its width or the shape of a room as a double cube. Regularity, as with ashlar (uniformly cut) stonework, was strongly approved, imbuing symmetry and adherence to classical rules: any lack of symmetry, where Georgian additions were added to earlier structures remaining visible, was deeply felt as a flaw. The roof was often hidden, as were the gutters, by parapet walls and the key thing was very much the front of the building, with everything else being hidden to the rear. The Georgian door was usually a six panel door with a light above, this was often a fan light to give light into the hallway. The terraced house arose from the need of the speculative builder to squeeze as many houses as possible into one street. So the typical Georgian town house was tall and narrow with a long narrow garden or court behind and for the largest houses a coach house or stable at the rear of the plot served by a subsidiary road or ‘mews’. The back yard usually contained a privy or ‘bog house’ - a primitive sanitary arrangement set over a cess-pit or ‘bog hole’. All houses except the poorest had basements containing a kitchen, a back kitchen or scullery and various stores - pantry, larder and storage for coal. The coal store often extended under the pavement so that the coal could be delivered without entering the basement.

Batenham's view of the "Three Old Arches" in Bridge Street. Batenham's views of Chester from c.1816 show the city when the frontages had been converted to a Georgian style, which still preserved The Rows and in this case the medieval arches. His systematic depiction of the streets of Chester foreshadows "Google Street View" by almost two centuries.

At the front the basement often looked onto a deep void below the street called the ‘area’ which often contained ‘area steps’ which provided a tradesmen’s’ entrance directly into the kitchen. It also provided a degree of security preventing access to the ground floor windows. The plan of the house was usually extremely simple with one room at the back and one at the front on each floor with a passage and staircase at one side although inevitably there were many minor variations on this plan. The party walls of the houses usually contained the chimney flues which added strength to the structure. Large houses would contain up to twenty-five or more individual flues which were swept of soot by young climbing boys. Georgian theories of proportion and symmetry governing the design of the façade were developed in the early eighteenth century and derived from the classical temples of Ancient Greece and Rome. Adapting Palladio’s principles, the Neo-Palladians created a system of proportions and ratios based on the square and circle (or cube and sphere). The square, in particular was considered the key to architectural beauty: and Robert Morris (1703-54) in his ‘Lectures on Architecture’ of 1734 and 1736 established seven ideal proportions, all based on the cube. Proportions based on squares were used to determine window openings and the system of window openings relative to wall areas, thus if the house was three bays wide (the usual width of the Georgian town house) then the space occupied by the first and second floor windows would usually be made roughly a square. The main entrance formed the dominant ornamental feature of the facade although doors were only placed symmetrically on detached houses. In the terraced house, the door was almost invariably placed at one side of the facade so that a two bay room – the parlour – could be located to the side of the entrance and hallway. Early eighteenth century porticos were generally made with heavy brackets supporting a hood, sometimes in the form of a shell. In the 1720s and 1730s, Palladian designs based on the temple were widely used for door cases with pillars supporting an entablature and pediment variously of ‘segmental’ (curved) or ‘broken’ form. The classic Georgian sash windows have the ‘six over six’ sash, some are even still flat along the base of the upper sash (without downward protruding wooden ‘horns’ that were invented later by Victorians to provide more stability). Georgian fire-places were a square shape with a simple geometric regency design. A raised basket in the centre simply dropped ash onto the hearth to be swept up later. A small hatch in the back let most of the smoke up the chimney. These fireplaces are beautiful but were not as warm and didn’t draw smoke away as well as the Victorian ones.

In Chester the most noted Georgian architect was Thomas Harrison. In the Georgian era, Chester became again a center of what passed for affluence, a town with elegant terraces where the landed aristocracy lived. This trend continued into the Industrial Revolution, when the city was populated with the upper classes fleeing to a safe distance from the industrial sprawls of Manchester and Liverpool. By the mid-C.18th, Chester was a busy coaching town. Elegant classical buildings replaced some of the medieval buildings on The Rows. The City Walls, no longer really needed to defend the citizens, (despite the scare of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745) were transformed into a promenade.

  • "Thus this beautiful walk, the offspring of war, is now solely devoted to the purposes of pleasure, and salubrious enjoyment; and thus is evil sometimes the parent of good." (Cowdroy's Cheshire Directory, 1789.)

The Georgian architecture of Chester is often overlooked, or even covered by the Victorian nailing on of black and white "planks and boards" to create a Tudor theme - at times very crudely. But ignore the black and white and look above the rows, to see Georgian Chester as it still survives.

Related Pages


Georgian Chester saw the emergence of (or vists from) a whole host of interesting, and often exuberant, characters who can shed light on various aspects of their times. Some of them, but by no means all, feature in the gallery below. Click on the text under their portraits to discover more about them.

As the gallery below shows on major fashion trend was the decline of the wig. By the mid-1740s men of all classes were wearing wigs. As the long and curling, full-bottomed wig grew to be synonymous with “old-fashionedness”, the more compact bag-wig replaced it as one of the most popular styles, with side hair worn in rows of stiff curls, the tighter the better. At the forefront of male hairstyling experimentation were the Macaronis, whose foppish, somewhat effeminate style was characterised by a towering wig of epic proportions and extravagance, eagerly satirised in cartoons. Ornamentation was crucial. The term actually comes from the pasta: young men who had been to Italy on the Grand Tour had developed a taste for maccaroni, a type of pasta little known in England then, and so they were said to belong to the Macaroni Club. They would refer to anything that was fashionable or à la mode as "very maccaroni".

Hair was also powdered throughout the eighteenth-century. Grey and white was the fashion for men on formal occasions, but women’s could be a lot more varied with shades ranging from pink and blue to black. The "powder room" originated as a place where powder could be applied without it going everywhere. By the end of the century, the elaborate white wigs and powder had become more associated with older, less fashionable men. Continuous taxation on hair powder by governments keen to raise funds had also hit the industry hard. William Pitt the Younger placed a sales tax on hair powder in 1786, at a variable rate. The first tax on hair powder was a stamp duty applied in 1786 and applied to packets of hair powder for wigs and on perfumes and cosmetics. The tax was set at 1d on packets costing up to 8d, rising to 1s on items over 5s. However, his next tax in 1795 meant that those who wished to use it had to pay a whole guinea every year to purchase a certificate to show they were allowed to use it. This was an extortionate rate, even for the fashion-forward, and it hastened the end of the pristine white wigs.

As with women’s wigs, by the end of the 18th century more natural hairstyles were gaining popularity as an interest in classical styles of the ancient Romans and Greeks grew. Hair continued to shorten, and wigs were eschewed for natural hair. Men’s hair began to extend down their faces, with sideburns becoming popular as the Georgian period entered the Regency period. One of the leaders of this new, shorter, fashion was the 5th Duke of Bedford, Francis Russell, who sported a cropped, unpowdered, natural hairstyle in protest at Pitt’s second powder tax, and encouraged his friends to join him. King George IV also wore his hair in a short, wavy, ruffled style. Wigs were out, and natural was in. This more natural style began to extend to all aspects of a man’s facial hair, with moustaches and beards becoming popular once more. This eventually led to the generally very-hairy Victorian men’s fashion.


Chester in Other Historical Periods